Chinese Island Bases in the South China Sea
By Jim Barton
The ghosts of Christmas past! In February 1972 when I was Operations officer aboard USS George K. MacKenzie (DD-836) we trailed a Chinese intelligence trawler to the Paracel Islands in the vicinity of Lincoln Island. We observed a lot of activity on the island, likely the first instance of occupying this and other places.
From the photo in the article looks like even more activity today.
Vietnam and China had armed conflict over these places. Looks like the Chinese have prevailed. Maybe we should have done something about it 46 years ago. We might be a little late to the party.
The ship was in Hong Kong when the intercept order came out. They had earlier passed close to the Philippines having come from the Malaysian Peninsula. After calculating the trawler position and projected course and speed aided by intelligence, we made a high-speed transit to Subic Bay, refueled and intercepted the trawler right where we calculated we would.
And these are the days before satellites. Really good celestial navigation (LORAN, in my opinion, was useless).
In transit to the Gulf of Tonkin for operations on Yankee Station or to our NGFS stations along the coast, we always gave this area a wide berth. Too many shoals. What was interesting about this transit is that the Chinese trawler made a beeline for Lincoln Island and passed over the Macclesfield Bank which is an underwater area of sunken atolls and reefs. They obviously knew the area better than we did. As they passed over it we circled around it and kept them on radar. We picked them up again between the Bank and the island.
After observing them for awhile, the trawler got underway again. We were directed to follow them even though we recommended staying close to Lincoln Island. They headed toward and through the Bank. This time we trailed them keeping a close watch on the fathometer and hoping our charts were accurate… After a day of this, they returned to Lincoln and anchored there was a large sailing junk which the Chinese used for resupply. There was lots of activity ashore. Ultimately we were relieved on station by long-range maritime patrol aircraft operating out of Cubi Point. We departed and headed to Yankee Station for plane guard duties. Soon after the Easter Offensive of 1972 began.
Our operation was highly classified at the time. I have omitted details respecting that even though 46 years have passed and our navigational positions are available from the Deck Logs.
My point at the outset was to show that the occupation of the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands have been a long process. The Chinese had a presence there even before this but they began to consolidate control over an area which they see as their territorial sea. Except for the South Vietnamese who fought a battle and lost with the Chinese in 1974, there has been no attempt to forcibly try to remove the Chinese. It will never happen now. We do not have the presence anymore and the others who claim the islands are too weak to mount a challenge. Some of these installations and port complexes are literally fortresses not unlike what the Japanese were doing throughout WWII.