Vietnam's persistent sovereignty claims over Paracel, Spratly

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Researcher Ta Dinh Dau presents a European map dated back to the 16th-17th century which showed that Paracel and Spratly archipelagos belonged to Vietnam.

In the National Assembly late last year Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung asserted Vietnam's sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa, also known as Paracel and Spratly islands, and mentioned China's use of violence to occupy Hoang Sa in 1974.

"Vietnam has sufficient legal and historical bases to assert that Hoang Sa and Truong Sa belong to Vietnam.

"We have owned them at least since the 17th century."

In 1974 China used violence to seize the entire Paracel archipelago, he said.

The then South Vietnam government objected, condemned the act, and sought United Nations intervention.

"Our consistent standpoint is that the Hoang Sa archipelago belongs to Vietnam, and we have sufficient historical and legal bases to assert this," Dung said.

"Our policy is to use negotiations so that we can assert our sovereignty over the Hoang Sa archipelago by peaceful means.

"This policy of ours is in line with the United Nations Charter, the Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the DOC declaration [Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea]."

Historical sovereignty

Vietnamese historical documents as well as records by Western navigators show that Vietnam -- or the Inner Region, Annam, or Dai Nam as the country was known during different periods -- had sovereignty over the Spratlys and Paracel at least from the 16th or 17th century.

The Nguyen lords set up the Hoang Sa Company, which exploited marine products.

Evidence for the taskforce's activities remain in the form of

- ordinances passed by kings and lords to dispatch envoys to exercise sovereignty over the Spratlys and Paracel

- family documents about members working for the taskforce that controlled the Spratlys and Paracel

- logs and maps about Vietnam by Chinese messengers and navigators

- logs and maps by Western navigators

- folk activities (like the ceremony performed in Quang Ngai Province to commemorate soldiers)

There is more evidence for feudal Vietnamese governments' exercise of sovereignty over the islands: a document by French priest Jean Louis Taberd says in 1868 King Gia Long had his flag hung in Paracel; 18th century Vietnamese scholar Le Quy Don's book Phu Bien Tap Luc (Miscellaneous Records on the Pacification of Frontiers) says clearly Paracel belonged to Vietnam.

During colonial times, the French government in Indochina often conducted activities to economically exploit Paracel, implicitly exercising sovereignty over it. At one time it had the archipelago administered by Thua Thien Province.  

During the Second World War, Japan sent troops to seize Paracel in 1939 and France protested. Japan withdrew its troops from the archipelago after defeat, and France took it over again.

But soon, due to happenings on the Vietnamese mainland, French troops had to leave Paracel.

By then the Republic of China, given the task of disarming Japanese troops under the Potsdam Agreement, headed for Phu Lam Island [Woody Island].

France then sent its ship Le Tonkinois to reoccupy the archipelago.

Later, in 1956, China (the Beijing government) seized Woody and Linh Con Islands in Paracel by getting their soldiers land on the islands disguised as fishermen.

Despite China's occupation of a part of the Paracel archipelago, Vietnam never gave up its sovereignty over it.

In 1951, at the San Francisco Conference in the US, Vietnamese Prime Minister Tran Van Huu declared Vietnam's sovereignty over the Paracel archipelago, and no country raised an objection.

In an interview in Paris in 1974, after China fired weapons to occupy Paracel in full, Huu said, "Vietnam's sovereignty over the Paracel archipelago was publicly declared at the [San Francisco] conference."

After the Geneva Agreement, Vietnam was divided into two. The Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes were controlled by the Republic of Vietnam government in the South.

In July 1961 the ROV issued an ordinance making Paracel (called Dinh Hai Commune) a part of Quang Nam Province.

In October 1969 it merged Dinh Hai Commune with Hoa Long Commune in Quang Nam's Hoa Vang District.

The Saigon regime even dispatched troops to safeguard Nguyet Thiem [the Crescent Group (of islands)] in Paracel.

It also consistently affirmed its sovereignty over Tuyen Duc [the Amphitrite Group (of islands)] and Linh Con Island in the northeast and east even though they were illegally occupied by China.

China's seizure and Vietnam's reaction

Since 1970, with its three-step strategy (control, own, and occupy), China has relentlessly expanded territorial occupation in the East Sea.

After occupying Tuyen Duc and Linh Con Island in Paracel in the 1950s, Beijing's warships fired guns to seize Nguyet Thiem Islands from the Republic of Vietnam in January 1974.

ROV warships and troops fought fiercely but were defeated due to their inferior numbers and weapons, and China grabbed the islands. In the battle 74 ROV soldiers died and 48 others were arrested.

Following its illegal acts, China has held the whole of Paracel since 1974.

China's use of violence to occupy Paracel caused unhappiness in Vietnam and many other parts of the world.

When China announced that the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes belonged to it on January 11, 1974, Deputy Foreign Minister Vuong Van Bac of the Republic of Vietnam strongly rejected it at a press conference held in Saigon.

Within a few days the ROV representative at the UN took the issue to the Security Council.

ROV ambassadors in many countries informed local governments about China's illegal action and sought their support. The government sent a diplomatic note to friendly countries to inform them about the happenings in Paracel and asserted its sovereignty over the archipelago. The Saigon regime also considered taking the case to the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

Since Vietnam was reunified in 1975 the government has always asserted the country's sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands. In May 1977 it issued a Declaration on Vietnam's territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf.

On November 12, 1982, Vietnam issued a Declaration on Territorial Sea Baseline, which is used for calculating the extent of Vietnam's sea territory.

These could prove to be important legal bases for protecting the nation's sovereignty over the sea and islands in the long term.

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