Land Border, South China Sea Disputes: Paracel Islands

By Henry J. Kenny

Excerpt from the book:
Shadow of the Dragon: Vietnam’s Continuing Struggle with China and the Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy, Potomac Book Inc., 2002, pp.61-64


The Paracel Islands are the second area of Sino-Vietnamese disputes in the South China Sea. Lying some 250 nautical miles east of Da Nang, the Paracels consist of two island groups: the Amphitrite Group to the east and the Crescent Group to the west. The entire land area of the Paracels totals 7.6 square kilometers, the largest of which is Woody Island, with almost two square kilometers.(32)

China has multiple claims to the Paracel Islands. First, it argues that its claim is supported by the 1887 Sino-French convention. That agreement gave China the right to all islands east of the longitude both countries had agreed to in dividing the Gulf of Tonkin. While Vietnam holds that this convention pertained only to the Gulf of Tonkin, China interprets it as pertaining to al of the South China Sea. Second, it claims a historic presence in the islands as evidenced by artifacts and records of ship visits dating to the Han dynasty. China supports this argument by citing recent discoveries of Chinese pottery and other items in the area. Third, China points out that it was the first country to exercise sovereignty over the Paracels, citing a 1909 claim. (33)

Vietnam rejects all these positions. First, it holds that the 1887 Sino-French convention was limited to the Gulf of Tonkin, a likely inference in light of the geographic focus of that convention. Second, it argues that Chinese artifacts do not constitute a basis for sovereignty. The Vietnamese political counselor in Beijing, for example, argues that Chinese artifacts in Japan do not mean that China owns Japan. Third, Hanoi claims that China never actually exercised sovereignty by occupying the islands in the wake of its 1909 claim, whereas Vietnam is the legal successor to French Indochina, which did claim and occupy the islands in 1933.

In fact, however, the French abandoned the isles in the face of Japanese advances in World War II, during which Japan seized the Paracels. In 1946 China reclaimed the islands but did not occupy them until 1956, and even then, they only occupied the Amphitrite Group. At the time, the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam recognized the Chinese position. Premier Pham Van Dong reportedly stated that “from the historical point of view, these islands are Chinese territory,” and in 1958 reiterated that position: “The Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam recognizes and supports the Government of the People’s Republic of China on its decision concerning China’s territorial sea made September 4, 1958.” (34)

Hanoi later rejected this position, stating that it was made out of necessity during a time when it depended on China for vital support in its war against the United States. When the government of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) laid claim to the Paracels and eventually stationed troops in the Crescent Group, Hanoi did nothing to support the Chinese position. In January 1974, after direct U.S. military involvement in South Vietnam had terminated, China seized the Crescent Group from South Vietnamese troops. At the time, with an eye on conquering the South, Hanoi registered its first formal statement expressing dissatisfaction with the Chinese position and called for peaceful resolution of territorial issues. China holds that subsequent Vietnamese objection to its rightful ownership of the Paracels is disingenuous and that Vietnam has no basis for such claims.

China has now strengthened its position in the Paracels to the point where Vietnam has little hope of ever “recovering” them. The PLA has constructed a 2,700-meter runway on Woody Island capable of servicing small numbers of fighter aircraft, and the PLA Navy has been fairly active in the area. (35)

The most significant Chinese action in the Paracels, however, was its 1996 announcement that it was establishing baselines completely around the islands. The most obvious interpretation of this action was that China was claiming the Paracels as a Chinese archipelago, with rights to all resources both within the baseline and reaching outward from it toward an as-yet-unidentified exclusive economic zone. Vietnam immediately protested the action. It stated that “China had deliberately ignored the provisions of the 1982 Convention of the Law of the Sea on the delineation of base lines concerning the archipelagoes belonging to littoral countries and unilaterally delineated the base line of the Paracel Archipelago as if the islands were an archipelagic nation.” (36) In fact, the Chinese action was even more egregious, for in subsequent discussions with ASEAN members, China has made the claim that waters within the baseline are “internal waters.” This is tantamount to saying all waters within the baselines are “the good earth” and that neither transit nor innocent passage by foreign vessels would be permitted. (37)

In contrast to Vietnam, China refuses to include the Paracels in the Code of Conduct being negotiated between China and the ASEAN states over the South China Sea. China has also opened the islands to tourists and constructed scientific and communications stations on the islands. (38) Vietnam has repeatedly condemned this construction. A typical Vietnamese reaction is as follows:

“The New China News Agency reported that China had built a satellite relay station on Woody Island to “extend China’s security network more than 300 km south of Hainan Island” and “to aid China in its assault on crimes related to weapons, drugs, and smuggling in the Eastern Sea.” China also installed telephone booths on Spratly Islands. However, the essence of the issue is not the purpose of controlling smuggling but to “expand into the south of the Eastern Sea, step by step conquering the islands of the region…” The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry pointed out: “Vietnam’s stance regarding the Spratly and Paracel Archipelagoes is clear. Vietnam is fully justified to assert its sovereignty over the two archipelagoes. With regard to the issues under dispute, Vietnam advocates striving for a fundamental and lasting solution through peaceful negotiations. While promoting talks it is necessary to maintain stability on the basis of the status quo, and the parties concerned should exert self-restraint and refrain from any action that may further complicate the situation. We consider any illegal action by foreign countries concerning the two archipelagoes a violation of Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty and invalid. We deem that the above-cited plan is not conducive to the relations between the two countries and the settlement of disputes in the Eastern Sea.” (39)

Vietnamese government officials continue to assert their country’s sovereignty over the Paracels. Government spokespersons typically react to any action that denies Vietnam’s claim to the islands. For example, when China announced a temporary ban on fishing in the South China Sea in 1999, the Vietnamese foreign ministry responded by reasserting Vietnam’s sovereignty over the islands.

“Vietnam has time and again affirmed that it has sufficient historical evidences and legal basis to prove its indisputable sovereignty over the Hoang Sa [Paracels] and Truong Sa [Spratly] archipelagoes… Any action by any country on or around Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes as well as in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zones and continental shelf without the Vietnamese Government’s consent is violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty and sovereign rights over these zones.” (40)

The possibility of petroleum discoveries adds to the dispute. In October 1999 China announced the discovery of natural gas-hydrate, a solid “gas ice” in the seabed of the Paracel Islands. Gas-hydrate is a clean high-power energy source with considerable potential for future development. The discovery is reportedly the first of its kind in China.(41)

In summary, both China and Vietnam have strong claims to the Paracels, but only China has maintained a presence there since 1974. Vietnam has little ability to project power to the Paracels, while China has developed the islands for cultural, economic, and military use. The importance of the Paracels to Vietnam, then, appears less in any real hope of “recovering” them as in using them as a bargaining chip in anticipated negotiations over bilateral disputes in the Spratly Islands. Therefore, Vietnam’s policy of maintaining the status quo supports its favorable position relative to China, but at the same time that policy undercuts its claims in the Paracels where Vietnam has no presence whatsoever.

About the AuthorDr. Henry Kenny directs studies for the U.S. Navy and the Pacific Command at the Center for Naval Analyses Corporation. He has served with the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the American Embassy in Tokyo, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kenny is the author of The American Role in Vietnam and East Asia and other publications. He lives in McLean, Virginia.

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