The History of Sovereignty Dispute between Vietnam and China

21/12/2007
Nguyen An
Radio Free Asia

The issue of sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos is creating a lot of discussions among the Vietnamese people in as well as outside Vietnam. While Vietnam has established sovereignty over these archipelagos for a long time, other countries also declare their sovereignty as well. As for China, it not only uses military force to gradually take over a number of islands, but recently, it also decided to establish an administrative city to oversee these islands.

In order to contribute to a deeper understanding of the present situation, RFA Vietnamese reporter Nguyen An has had an exchange with the researcher Truong Nhan Tuan. He is presently living in France and is the author of the book entitled “Chinese and Vietnamese Borders, 1885-2000: History of development and disputes” published by Diem Chau Publishing Company. The book has 860 pages and is judged as a valuable work of research.

Geographical location and sovereignty

Nguyen An: Greetings to you Mr. Truong Nhan Tuan. The first question I would like to ask you is about the geographical location of the Paracel and Spratly islands. These two archipelagos are located in the Eastern Sea, but where are they in respect to China and Vietnam, the two countries who are disputing over sovereignty?

Truong Nhan Tuan: I would like to first extend my greetings to the RFA listeners. The distance from the Paracel islands to Hainan (China) and from the Paracel islands to Da Nang (Vietnam) is approximately equal. As for the Spratly islands, there are many countries involved in the dispute.

The Spratly archipelago lies to the South of Paracel islands. It is composed of very small islands scattered on the sea 500km wide, and E-W more than 1000km long. This means that it is very difficult to speak in terms of who is closest to these islands.

Nguyen An: Indeed, it is too spread out. Nevertheless, different from what most people think, there is not an issue of whichever country closest to the islands have the right to the islands?

Truong Nhan Tuan: This is an issue that we have to affirm.


Nguyen An: Returning to the main topic of our discussion today, which is sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos. Before 1975 Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel. South Vietnam was called the Republic of Vietnam while the North was called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Before 1975 how did the positions of the two sides differ with regards to China declaring sovereignty over both archipelagos.

Truong Nhan Tuan: There are many points of disagreement, which are the same issues that lead to the negative impact on Vietnam in the present. In the theory of national continuity we see that Vietnam has discovered, occupied, and carried out effective sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos since a very long time.

History books as well as historical maps of Vietnam have recorded clearly that long ago, people called these islands “Golden Sandbanks,” which was Hoang Sa, Van Ly Hoang Sa or Dai Truong Sa or Van Ly Truong Sa. These are the Vietnamese names for the islands. These localities and islands had been Vietnamese territories for a long period of time.

If we speak of sovereignty, we need to have historical evidence to prove our position. Vietnam indeed has many historical evidence. It is difficult to list all these now because of the lack of time. For example, our historical books from the 17th century had already mentioned of Vietnamese sovereignty over the Paracel islands.

Nguyen An: Do these evidence tell us that Vietnam has occupied and administered these islands since a long time ago?

Truong Nhan Tuan: Vietnam has administered and exploited these islands since a long time ago.

Dispute between Vietnam and China

Nguyen An: China also says that it has sovereignty. Does it provide evidence the same as the Republic of Vietnam?

Truong Nhan Tuan: This issue is somewhat complex. The evidence that China provides are evidence provided by [North Vietnam], for example….

Nguyen An: You mean from the side of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam at that time.

Truong Nhan Tuan: Yes. There is a somewhat weighty piece of evidence that China makes use of.

Nguyen An: Can you explain more clearly about the evidence made use by China provided by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam?

Truong Nhan Tuan: Based on a number of documents from Peking, on 15/6/1956 the Vice Foreign Minister of the DRV Ung Van Khiem, at the time of hosting a visit from the Chinese temporary ambassador in Vietnam, spoke the following: “According to documents that Vietnam has presently, historically speaking, Tay Sa and Nam Sa islands belong to China.”

Nguyen An: Tay Sa and Nam Sa means the Paracel and Spratly islands?

Truong Nhan Tuan: Yes, the Paracel and Spratly islands. But I would like to open a parenthesis right here to say that we don’t know what history books Ung Van Khiem was reading, because all our history books before that never had the names Tay Sa and Nam Sa.

China also presents other evidence, such as the incident of Le Loc (Temporary Head of the Asian Mission) also present at that time adding that: “From a historical perspective, the archipelagos of Xi Sa and Nan Sa (Tay Sa and Nam Sa) belonged to China since the T’ang dynasty.

Nguyen An: Le Loc is a person of China or of the DRV?

Truong Nhan Tuan: An official of the DRV. This is why the issue is complicated and weighty. However, after this, Vietnamese scholars conducted research to see what history books from the T’ang dynasty mentioned this. As a result, a set of documents was made available, and they found out that the information in those documents were completely contrary to the truth. Information was cut and paste, and content was altered to produce those ideas.

Diplomatic Note of Pham Van Dong

Nguyen An: Are there other evidence from the DRV presented by China regarding sovereignty?

Truong Nhan Tuan: Yes. The famous one is the diplomatic note of Pham Van Dong, written on 14/9/1958 which admits the territorial waters declared by China a few days before. The Chinese declaration was that the archipelagos of Hoang Sa, Nam Sa, and Truong Sa belonged to China.

Nguyen An: So it was an admittance of Chinese sovereignty over these islands?

Truong Nhan Tuan: In reality, there is nothing in the content of the letter that explicitly states admittance of Chinese sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands becaue the letter only states that Vietnam “make notes and admits the declaration of China regarding territorial waters of China” but does not mention about sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos.

What makes the justification somewhat weak is because during the war, when the Chinese navy invaded the Paracel islands in 1974, there was no objection from the DRV. This silence becomes a weighty piece of evidence for China to claim that Vietnam had admmitted Chinese sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos already.

Nguyen An: Based on what you just presented, is this the reason why Qin Gang (Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson) commented that Vietnam’s position regarding sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos changed over different periods of time?

Truong Nhan Tuan: This is correct. But the legal significance is not simple. Declarations made by officials in North Vietnam at that time may be a reality. The fact that Peking presents them without protestations or justifications from Hanoi tells us that it is probably true. Nevertheless, this fact does not mean that Chinese sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos has been proven.

The issue is like this. Based on the theory of national continuity, which is the issue of inheritance, we see that inheritance lies with the Republic of Vietnam (S. Vietnam). On 6/4/1975 the Temporary Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam declared liberation of the Spratly islands.

By September 1975, the Temporary Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam in its meeting regarding meteorological stations in Colombo also declared that the Paracel islands belonged to Vietnam and ordered for the obtaining of weather information to be continued on the Paracel islands.

Based on this data, on the perspective of inheritance, and on the theory of national continuity, the entity that took over from the Republic of Vietnam never delcared the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos as belonging to China.

At the same time, the declarations made by officials in the DRV, in my opinion, are made without due authority. They can be said as merely personal opinions. We cannot say that these are opinions of the country of Vietnam.

China, being a strong opponent would certainly make use of these things, and call them evidence. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese government has not found a way to go against them because it puts the Vietnamese leadership in a very difficult position. But how it turns out in the end is still an open issue.

Nguyen An: Thank you Mr. Truong Nhan Tuan

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