Vietnam's Sovereignty Over Hoang Sa Islands

Saigon Times Magazine
12-2-04

Hoang Sa (Paracel Islands) comprise more than 30 islands that are coral reefs and shoals. They are at 15.45 degrees to 17.15 North and 111 degrees to 113 East on an area of 16,000 sq km in the East Sea, 120 nautical miles (1 nautical mile=1.852 km) off Ly Son Island in Quang Ngai Province of Vietnam and 140 nautical miles off Hainan Island of China. The land surface area of Hoang Sa is about 10 sq km. The largest island, Phu Lam, has an area of 1.2 sq km.

Under the Nguyen Dynasty, Hoang Sa belonged to Quang Ngai District, Quang Nam Province. In 1938, they were part of Thua Thien Province. In 1961, they were named Dinh Hai Commune and were part of Hoa Vang District in Quang Nam Province. They became an island district of the centrally run city Danang under a Government's decision issued on November 23, 1996.

Hoang Sa, together with Truong Sa (Spratly) islands, is part of Vietnam's territory. In the early 17th century the Nguyen lords set up an army made up of locals from Quang Ngai District to gather goods and tools left aboard stranded ships in Hoang Sa and exploit precious marine resources. These activities continued until the 20th century and were recorded in many historical documents such as Toan tap Thien nam tu lo do thu (1686), Phu bien tap luc (1776), Lich trieu hien chuong loai chi, Dai Nam thuc luc tien bien, Dai Nam thuc luc chinh bien (1844), Dai Nam nhat thong chi (1910) and Quoc trieu chinh bien toan yeu. The Nguyen lords also sent men to Hoang Sa to conduct surveys, erect milestones and stelae and grow trees.

With the exploitation of resources in the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa across the centuries, the Nguyen Dynasty exercised its sovereignty over the two island groups practically and legally. The sovereignty seemed to be undisputable until the 20th century. Meanwhile, China's maps and historical records do not have evidence of Chinese sovereignty over the two islands. Even the Hai luc (1842) states: "Van ly Truong Sa comprise shoals spreading several thousand miles on the sea that are the outer border of An Nam."

In 1907, China began to eye Hoang Sa and Truong Sa. In May 1909, it sent three gun ships to break into some islands in Hoang Sa. In 1921, the South China government decided to merge Hoang Sa, which they called Tay Sa, into Hainan Island. The move sparked a territorial dispute over Hoang Sa with the French colonial ruler of Vietnam at that time, and later over Truong Sa in 1930. In 1935, China claimed its territory included four groups of islands in the East Sea.

In 1939, Japan took over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa from France and turned them into navy bases. However, a conference between the U.S., Britain and China in Cairo in November 1943 ruled that Japan must return the Chinese territories it occupied. The Potsdam conference in August 1945 between the U.S., Britain, China and Russia ruled that the Cairo declaration must be observed. It should be noted that the Chinese territories that Japan had occupied and must return to China included Manchuria, Taiwan and Pescadores (Penghu) Islands. Hoang Sa and Truong Sa were not mentioned.

China, however, continued to claim sovereignty over the two islands in one way or another in 1947, 1950 and 1951. At the conference for redefinition of the borders of countries after World War II held in San Francisco in 1951 with the participation of 51 countries, 46 voted against the motion to return Hoang Sa and Truong Sa to China, only three supported the motion.

In 1956, China sent troops to occupy a group of islands east of Hoang Sa, taking advantage of the situation where French forces had to withdraw from Vietnam and the Vietnamese Government had yet to take over the islands and consolidate forces there.

In 1974, China occupied some more islands of Hoang Sa which were controlled by the Saigon regime. Nguyen Van Thieu, then president of the regime, asked for American intervention. However, the U.S. ignored the plea, as it did not want to take the risk of protecting the territory of a country that it had to give up.

In 1988, China again mobilized air and navy forces to occupy six areas in Truong Sa. The issue became more complicated in 1992 when China signed a contract with Crestone allowing the American company to explore for and exploit oil in a block of 25,500 sq km on Vietnam's continental shelf that is 84 nautical miles from the base line of Vietnam and 570 miles from Hainan Island.

Vietnam continues to assert its sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa islands. Its policy is to resolve the territorial dispute peacefully through negotiation.

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