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The Chapres Incident was a standoff between the French Empire and Chinese Empire in April 1993, when the submarine VNI Chapres of the Marine Imperiale entered Chinese territorial waters and encountered a contingent of fellow Chinese ships and submarines off the southern Chinese coast. The Chapres, using a new experimental satellite tracking system, was in fact hundreds of miles away from where the satellite said they should have been - namely, off of the Mekong delta, which caused confusion.
The incident was noteworthy in that it was one the narrowest avoidances of nuclear armed conflict in world history - the Chinese had demonstrated in the past their willingness to deploy atomic bombs, as their two detonations against Burmese forces in 1976's Burmese War had shown. The captain of the Chapres, Gerard Etanieu, voted against engaging Chinese vessels despite the assurances of his crew that the French vessel was being aggressed against. Two of the Chinese submarines, SV-3 and SV-7, were armed with nuclear missiles and the captains of both ships went on record after the Chinese government acknowledged the incident in 1996 as to saying that they would absolutely have fired their warheads at French targets in the region had the Chapres engaged them.
Leadup to Incident
The Marine Imperiale had been deployed in early 1992 to back up combat missions in Siam during the Siamese War. While early maneouvres by the Imperial Navy were limited to a naval blockade of Indochinese ports, the issues of rampant piracy in the South China Sea soon resulted in Marshal Jerome Richy expanding the flotilla's presence by deploying twenty submarines to back up the two squadrons of surface vessels already in the region, a move titled Operation Swordfish.
Six of the submarines used in Operation Swordfish were Class VI vessels, which had been commissioned starting in 1984 as part of Emperor Albert II's efforts to modernize the Marine Imperiale. Richy's predecessor, Marshal Nicolo de Brouchien, had been a former Admiral prior to his accession to Marshalship, and had been adamant about the deployment of the ultramodern submarines to active combat once a major conflict arose. Brouchien retired in 1990 just prior to the French deployment to Indochina.
The Class VI submarines were initially docked in Marseilles, but in 1990 were sailed by skeleton crews through the Sinai Canal before being outfitted with fresh permanent crews in Karachi. They would then rendezvous with the other fourteen submarines earmarked for Operation Swordfish at Singapore before beginning combat missions.
Swordfish officially began on February 20th, 1993 when the twenty submarines sailed out of Singapore's harbor and into the South China Sea. SEAMA vessels and other ships carrying supplies to the entrenched guerrillas throughout Indochina were now at a direct threat from submarine warfare.
The Class VI submarines, besides having significantly quieter engines than their Class IV or V counterparts, were also the only ships in the South China Sea not carrying tactical nuclear warheads. While the tactical warheads were not particularly high yield, a mere 5 megatons apiece, the Class VI vessels had long-range torpedoes and a more efficient surface-to-air missile delivery system. They also relied on OMPI (L'Orbit a la Mer Placant l'Interface) satellites, which were a next-generation GPS system that could track submarines from space, through water, up to depths of one thousand feet. The OMPI had been developed by scientists at the University of Strasbourg and then been militarized in the late 1980's, and after successful testing between 1989 and 1991, was considered acceptable for active service by the time the Class VI submarines were deployed for Operation Swordfish in 1993.
After a month spent sinking pirate vessels and assisting in the blockade, four Class VI submarines, including the VNI Chapres, were sent east to investigate reports of Vietnamese naval activity off the Mekong Delta. The reconassaince mission was given permission to sink enemy vessels if engaged, and a Vietnamese translator was assigned to all four submarines.
On April 1st, the Chapres entered radio silence and began heading for its mission site - only it was actually headed to a location hundreds of miles north, about sixty miles off the coast of Hainan.
Despite their official neutrality in the conflict, the Chinese Empire had been strongly resentful of the growing French influence in what they considered their sphere of influence in the mid-to-late 20th century. Their destruction of the pro-French Burmese exile government in the mid-1970's with the assistance of atomic weapons had established that the Chinese were serious about exerting the same kind of influence in Indochina and beyond as the Japanese were in the Pacific.
During the Vietnamese civil war in the 1980's, the Chinese had funded the socialist forces that eventually overthrew the French-backed puppet regime in Saigon, but French soldiers remained in power in much of the countryside and forcibly occupied the Kingdom of Cambodia. With pro-French royalist government in Siam collapsing in the early 1990's, the Chinese were quick to equip the Siamese People's Army with modern weapons, even airplanes. And the South East Asian Mercenary Army, which had been China's boldest enemy in Burma, was now fighting their old employers, the French, with a strong new bankroller in Peking.
The Chinese sale of weapons to the SPA was covert, and they were in fact using discarded and outdated Japanese armaments as well as the chassises of scrapped American tanks. The Chinese Navy ramped up their presence in the South China Sea once the Marine Imperiale expanded its deployment.
While the Chinese were unaware of the extent of the submarine deployment under Swordfish, they were aware that the Marine Imperiale would probably execute a smaller scale plan at some point. The Chinese thus sent out thirty submarines, and rented an additional six from the Japanese, which were sent to the Gulf of Tonkin and South China Sea in March.
On March 31st, Chinese President Han Piang told his top naval commanders that any French aggression was to be defended against swiftly and also informed them that a third of the submarines sent into the field would be equipped with two low-yield nuclear warheads apiece, and that if the French attacked Chinese territory to launch the missiles against Siamese and Vietnamese targets held by the French.
At 1300 hours on April 4th, 1993, the Chapres encountered a contact on their sonar. Operators onboard were surprised to realize that it was in fact only fifty feet deeper than they were - in the region they believed they were sailing in, they were only expecting surface vessels.
Convinced that a Chinese patrol submarine had ventured south, Captain Etanieu and his top officers conferred about how to approach the situation. With ordered radio silence, they did not want to hail the vessel out of fear that SEAMA was now equipped with outdated Japanese technology - missives from Singapore had reached the submarine fleet suggesting that that was possibly the case. They did not want to attack the ship, however, since Etanieu did not want to commit an act of war against the mighty Chinese Empire.
He resolved to do what he had been trained to do and used the satellite uplink to alert Singapore of the encounter. Admiral Joseph Bousse, stationed in Singapore, responded that the Chapres needed to adhere to radio silence and continue north to the mission site.
With the OMPI system telling both the Chapres and the operators in Singapore that the submarine was where it should have been, little was thought of the incident. Bousse's aide, Commander Jacques Simonieux, phoned a Chinese admiral he knew over a secure line and asked if the Chinese were operating in the Mekong, and if so to surface lest the French accidentally engage them.
The Chinese admiral, Je Yuanshian, curtly rebuffed Simonieux and told him that the Chinese were not anywhere near the Mekong, and that it must have been the French Navy's mistake. He also sternly warned that any infringement upon Chinese territorial waters would result in immediate retaliation.
At 1700 hours, Bousse received word from a Churat spy within the Chinese navy that the Chinese were discussing a rogue vessel apparently near the limits of their territorial waters - and they were debating a military response. Due to high tensions over the French presence in Indochina as well as the well-known Chinese supply lines of weaponry into Burma, Emperor Albert II was immediately contacted in Paris.
Albert II brought Richy, Defense Minister George Ipenides and State Minister Alexander Neveshkin to the Imperial Palace's situation bunker to discuss strategy. Other members of the General Staff were contacted in conference call. Richy pointed out that the Chinese felt deeply threatened by French military actions near their borders and suggested that the whole standoff was a ruse to give them an excuse to intervene militarily in Siam on behalf of the SPA. The Emperor called up the chief Air Command general in the field in Siam, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and commanded him to proceed to mobilize almost half of the bombers and fighters stationed in Bangkok and southwards in preparation for a massive air strike against SPA bases along the Chinese border and in China itself. He also wrote a formal declaration of war against China that he placed in his private desk in case he would need it.
Schwarzenegger's response was to have almost five hundred planes in the air within an hour, an impressive feet on such short notice. An hour later, refueling planes were airborne as well and the French Air Command was patrolling just shy of Chinese airspace.
Chinese Emperor Yuyan was evacuated from Peking as top Chinese brass conferred late into the night over the continuing travel of the French submarine. At 2000 hours local time, the Chapres unwittingly crossed into Chinese territorial waters.
By this point, the standoff was now escalating beyond the submarine itself - the ballistic missile system in China was put on full alert as the Chapres barrelled further north throughout the early morning, and three additional Chinese submarines were deployed to intercept it. Concerned about the French reasoning for this behavior, the Chinese held off on directly engaging the vessel despite its now-obvious breach of territorial waters.
Chinese Air Force bombers were scrambled as early as 0300 hours local time and sent into the air over northern Vietnam and the Siamese hinterland. Their flight paths came within about twenty miles of those of the French Air Command. French pilots were told to stand down unless fired upon by Chinese fighters. About half of the Chinese bombers launched in the second wave, after 0700, were equipped with low-yield tactical atomic warheads.
The French nuclear contingent in Southeast Asia was nowhere near that of the Chinese - five short-range missiles with tactical nuclear weapons were kept in island silos south of Singapore, which could reach Indochina but not China proper. While there were medium-range ballistic missiles in Hindustan, the French Empire had never seen China as a major enough enemy to want to place tactical warheads in Hindustan itself. The French ICBM's in central Russia, however, had the capability of striking targets in western and central China, but the coveted and more important population and military targets were all along the eastern coast. In other words, in case of a nuclear assault by the Chinese against parts of Russia, all of Indochina as well as Hindustan and Singapore, would be unmatched by the French Empire, which directed its nuclear focus towards the United States and Turkey.
Emperor Albert continued his long military strategy brief with his top commanders as the Chapres continued north. He was well aware that Imperial colonial holdings in Asia would be decimated by an immediate and unstoppable Chinese strike, despite Surface-to-Air missile defense grids in northern Hindustan. With the major warhead reduction treaty signed in 1991 with America, the French had no nuclear weapons immediately deployable against China. Chinese ICBM's could hit Moscow, Kiev and Novgorod within five minutes of launch, a sobering report announced when Richy considered the rumored silos along the Persian border.
Albert's first instinct was to contact his Persian allies and suggest that should the Chinese launch nuclear weapons against French colonies or the Empire proper, that the Persians respond in turn. Shah Reza Pahlavi responded politely that the Persians were not interested in starting a nuclear war with China, and that they had no long-range missile capabilities with which to battle the Chinese.
The situation for the French became more and more hopeless. Nuclear warheads were loaded onto cargo planes by the dozen and flown towards Hindustan, but it was a stopgap measure - the planes could potentially arrive hours late.
With all of these proceedings still secret on both sides, the Marine Imperiale commanders in Singapore began discussing potential strategy for a counterattack should the Chinese begin a conventional assault against the French in the region. Brousse and Simonieux both agreed that nuclear warfare was unlikely - the Chinese would first bombard the french with their ballistic missiles and then deploy their air force, which was the largest in the world, against French targets in Siam and Vietnam before attacking the navy itself.
The contingency was a defensive perimeter formed off the Mekong Delta by nearby French vessels, and Schwarzenegger, in Bangkok, immediately recalled almost a hundred planes to fly defensive maneouvres near the coastline of the South China Sea. Not wanting to aggravate the powerful foe, top French brass were preparing for what was sure to be a devastating assault.
"We'll have the Chinese lobbing rockets at us within the hour," Schwarzenegger guaranteed Richy over a conference call between Paris and Bangkok at 1200 hours. The Chapres finally broke radio silence fifteen minutes later at 1217 when five submarine contacts had them surrounded. Etanieu described his confusion and noted that the OMPI system guaranteed that he was in Vietnamese water, not anywhere near the Chinese.
Chinese Captain Lei Leung replied to him that he was in fact fifteen miles off the coast of Hainan and demanded he turn back at once. Still reliant on the OMPI system, Etanieu ordered his submarine stop its progress until he received word from Singapore on how to proceed.