by ROBERTO TOFANI
[Part 1 here]
Discussions and debates during the one-day workshop – ‘Sovereignty over Paracel and Spratly Archipelagos: Historical and Legal Aspects’ – held in the Quang Ngai province at the end of April and organized by the Pham Van Dong University focused mostly on two topics related to the South China Sea issue: historical and legal aspects over the sovereignty of the Paracel (Hoang Sa) and Spratly (Truong Sa) archipelagos. A flashpoint that is involving more and more international actors with implications not solely at a regional level.
In presenting their arguments, a number of scholars and academics, both Vietnamese and foreign, stressed the importance of the role the international community could and should play in this context. For this reason, what was emphasized the most, particularly from the Vietnamese side, was the importance of providing historical proof of whose claims are valid and the unwillingness by the Chinese authorities to respect international law, underlining their “illegal occupations” of the islands and rocks of the two archipelagos.
Regarding the collection of historical evidence, the major point that emerged from the workshop was the clear proof of the jurisdiction exercised by the Nguyen Dynasty who ruled Dai Viet (The Great Viet) from 1802 to 1945. (1)
“The Nguyen Dynasty’s Official Document–administrative documents of the Vietnamese Feudal Royal Dynasties under the reign of the Nguyen Kings–feature the King’s red royal remarks of various types,” as stated in a recent Vietnamese publication: ‘Collection of Official Documents of the Nguyen Dynasty on the exercise of the Sovereignty of Vietnam over Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratlys)archipelagos’, that is available in four languages: Vietnamese, English, French and Chinese. According to the National Archive centre I, State Records Management and Archives Department of Viet Nam, of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, “the Official Documents of the Nguyen Dynasty are categorized into 734 volumes with thousands of unit documents.”
The Nguyen Dynasty’s Official Document is important in terms of both form and substance. With regard to form, “these documents are original with the direct order from the Kings,” which makes it highly valuable from a legal standpoint. With regard to its substance, they “provide valuable information concerning the administration of the country in different aspects, including the exercise of sovereignty, which is of particular interest […] Although a number of the documents have been lost, the collected ones are more than enough to show the broad picture of the exercise of sovereignty over the two archipelagos by the Nguyen Dynasty.”
As regards the Paracels the evidence is as follows: “During the period when Vietnam was divided into two lordships under King Le—write Jonathan London and Vu Quang Viet (2)–the analyst Le Qui Don wrote in 1774 in his Phu bien tap luc recorded annual trips by Nguyen Lord of the South to the Paracels. When Vietnam was unified, the first King, King Gia Long declared sovereign claims over the Paracels in 1816. Gia Long and two subsequent Kings demonstrated effective sovereignty and control over the islands through repeated and well-documented official visits and reports over five decades. King Minh Mang annually from 1835-1838 sent troops to the Paracels, so did King Thieu Tri until 1854. These continuous actions clearly signify the effective control over the Paracels.” (3)
An illegal occupation
The Republic of China (ROC) made its first claims to the Paracels in 1932 in a written communiqué to the French. From 1949 to 1973, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) maintained a physical presence on only one feature in the South China Sea, the Amphitrite group (Nhom Tuyen Duc) in the eastern Paracel Islands (Quan Dao Hoang Sa). In January 1974, Chinese naval forces engaged and defeated the armed forces of the Republic of Viet Nam (Viet Nam Cong Hoa) and occupied the Crescent group (Dao Nguyet Thiem) of islands in the western Paracels, over which Vietnam, China and Taiwan have laid claims.
Regarding the Spratly islands, in March 1988, Chinese forces engaged naval forces of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and took control of the Johnson South (Da Gac Ma) and Fiery Cross (Da Chu Thap) reefs. Between 1994 and 1995 Beijing took control also of the unoccupied Mischief Reef (Panganiban or Da Van Khanh) belonging to the Philippines.
“China has also occupied McKennan Reef (Chigua), Gaven Reef (Burgos) Subi Reef (Zamora), Johnson Reef (Da Gac Ma), Cuarteron Reef (Bai Chau Vien/Dao Chau Vien) and Fiery Cross Reef. During the 1990s China and Vietnam moved to take control of as many of the unoccupied features they could,” Prof. Carlyle A. Thayer, of the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra (Australia), writes in his research paper presented at the workshop. (4)
These two military actions, followed by more recent administrative and political actions promoted by Chinese authorities, like raising the administrative status of Sansha City from country-level to prefecture level with continuing jurisdiction over the Paracel (Nansha) and Spratly (Xisha) and Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha), “are part of calculated actions to take control and occupy the South China Sea,” Prof. Do Tien Sam from the Hanoi’s Institute of Chinese Studies stated. This despite the fact that the Chinese decision to raise Sansha’s status has also been described as a reaction to the Vietnamese National Assembly’s decision to adopt the Law of the Sea in June 2012.
“Taking control of the South China Sea is a long aim for Beijing,” Prof. Sam remarked, convinced that “every Chinese activity in the region is taken to deter the other claimants—Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.” In Prof. Sam’s opinion, China not only has violated Vietnamese sovereignty and the agreements reached with Vietnam in 2011, when Beijing and Hanoi reaffirmed their commitment to deal with the South China Sea dispute “through negotiations and peaceful friendly consultations,” but most importantly the “Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).”
One consensus that emerged among the majority of participants is that Vietnam should defend its positions with the support of the international community. By contrast, Beijing made quite clear that there is no need to internationalise the South China Sea issue, remarking that every single dispute has to be discussed between the claimants at a bilateral level. It is quite possible that the Vietnamese authorities are still uncertain about their option to play the international card in a game where China is becoming more assertive and inflexible.
- From 1858 to 1945 the Nguyen Dynasty ruled under the French occupation.
- Dr. Jonathan London is a professor at the City University of Hong Kong. Dr. Vu Quang Viet is an independent analyst and formerly a statistical analyst at the United Nations.
- ‘Viet Nam, China and the conflict in the Southeast Asian Sea’.
- ‘The Philippines’ Claim to the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal: Implications for Viet Nam’.
Roberto Tofani is a freelance journalist and analyst covering South East Asia. He is also the co-founder of PlanetNext, an association of journalists committed to the concept of “information for change” and editor of Sudestasiatico.com.
A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 29 post(s) on Asia Security Watch