White Paper on the
Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands
Republic of Vietnam
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
THE TRUONG SA (SPRATLY) ISLANDS BELONG TO THE VIETNAMESE
The Vietnamese islands of Truong Sa, known internationally
as the Spratly archipelago, are situated off the Republic of Vietnam's
coast between approximately 80 and 11040 North latitude. In. the
course of history, the Vietnamese people have had intermittent contact
with these islands known for their dangerous grounds and access.
Unlike the case of the Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands,
the former emperors of Vietnam did not have the time to strengthen
these contacts through the organization of an administrative jurisdiction.
However, the French, who occupied the Southern part of Vietnam known
as Cochinchina, took all those measures necessary for the establishment
of the legal basis for possession of the Spratly Islands. In 1933,
the Spratlys were incorporated into the French colony of Cochinchina
and from that year forward have had an adequate administrative structure.
It is true that French jurisdiction was disrupted
by the Japanese invasion of 1941. However, shortly after the Japanese
defeat in 1945, France returned Cochinchina to Vietnam, which then
recovered all the rights attached to the former French colony. Immediately
thereafter, Vietnamese sovereignty over the Truong Sa Islands faced
groundless claims from other countries in the area which military
occupied some of the islands of the archipelago.
Geographic and historic background
The Truong Sa archipelago is spread over hundreds
of miles in the South China Sea. However, it only contains 9 islands
of relatively significant:
* Truong Sa or Spratly Island proper.
* An Bang or Amboyna Cay.
* Sinh Ton or Sin Cowe.
* Nam Yet or Nam Yit.
* Thai Binh or Itu-Aba.
* Loai Ta.
* Thi Tu.
* Song Tu Tay or South West Cay.
* Song Tu Dong or North East Cay.
Because of the size of the area, the archipelago
is divided into many groups. Using the main island of Spratly (which
gave its name to the whole archipelago) as a point of reference,
the distances to the shores of surrounding countries are as follows:
- Spratly Island to Phan Thiet (Republic of Vietnam)
280 nautical miles.
- Spratly Island to the closest shore of Hainan Island (People's
Republic of China) 580 nm.
- Spratly Island to the closest shore on Palawan Island (Philippines)
- Spratly Island to the closest shore of Taiwan 900 nm.
Like the Hoang Sa Islands, the Truong Sa archipelago
is composed of little coral islands which are often surrounded by
smaller reefs. Because of their proximity to the coast of Vietnam,
these islands have always been frequented by fishermen from the
southern part of Vietnam.
These fishermen made regular expeditions to the islands
and sometimes stayed there for prolonged periods of time. Vietnamese
history books often made reference to the ,Dai Truong Sa Dao-, a
term used to designate both the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes
and, more generally, all insular possessions of the Vietnamese (50).
The map published circa 1838 by Phan Huy Chu and called "Dai
Nam Nhat Thong Toan Do" (fig. 8, page 32) expressly mentioned
the Spratlys, under the name Van Ly Truong Sa, as part of Vietnamese
territory, although the archipelago was not located at its proper
place because of the use of ancient geographic techniques.
These distant islands were often neglected by the
Vietnamese authorities of the time. The emperors did not implement
a systematic policy of occupation on the Truong Sa Islands as they
had for the other archipelago, Hoang Sa. Furthermore, the Empire
of Vietnam lost interest in the islands off the Cochinchinese shore
as the French occupation of Cochinchina began in 1852. For their
part, the French took some time before consolidating their rights
to the Truong Sa archipelago. Their first recorded action was a
scientific reconnaissance of the Spratlys by the vessel De Lanessan
following its exploration of the Paracels (1927). This scientific
mission was followed by an official expedition in 1930 on the sloop
la Malicieuse, in the course of which the French flag was hoisted
on the highest point of an island called Ile de la Tempete.
Legal basis of Vietnamese possession
In 1933, the French Government decided to take official
possession of the islands. Three ships, the Alerte, the Astrobale
and the De Lanessan took part in the expedition. The following are
relevant quotations from an account given by H. Cucherousset in
L'Eveil economique de l'Indochine (No. 790 of May 28, 1933):
"The three vessels first of all visited Spratley
and confirmed French possession by means of a document drawn up
by the Captains, and placed in a bottle which was subsequently embedded
"Then the Astrolabe sailed south west to a point
70 miles from Spratley and 200 miles from Borneo, and arrived at
the caye (sandy island) of Amboine, at the northern extremity of
the Bombay Castle Shallows. Possession was taken of the island in
the manner related above. This cave protrudes two meters 40 cm above
the sea at high tide.
"Two-thirds of the rock which forms the caye
is covered with a thick layer of guano, which the Japanese do not
seem to have completely exploited.
"Meanwhile, the Alerte sailed towards the atoll
Fiery Cross (or Investigation) at a point about 80 miles north-west
of Spratly and equidistant from Cape Padaran and the southern point
of Palawan Island. The whole of this vast reef protrudes only at
a few points above the surface of the sea.
At the same time the De Lanessan proceeded towards
the London reefs, at about 20 miles north-east of Spratly. There
it discovered the wreckage of the Francois Xavier, which was wrecked
there in 1927 while on its way from Noumea to Indochina via this
part of the China Sea, in which, in spite of its great depth, navigators
are not advised to sail too boldly.
"Itu Aba. which is surrounded by a reef, is
mentioned in the naval instructions of 1919 as being covered with
bushes and thickets with the nests of many sea birds, and a number
of banana and coconut trees growing around a well....
"The De Lanessan and Astrolabe later sailed
north where, about 20 miles from the Tizard bank, is situated the
Loaita bank, an atoll of the same kind. The two vessels took formal
possession of the main island, on which are also to be found the
remains of plantations and an unexhausted phosphate working. Loaita
Island is a sandy isle, low, covered with bush, and a bare 300 metres
"The Alerte for its part visited the Thi-Thu
reef, at about 20 miles north of the Loaita bank, and took possession
of an island and of this atoll. still by means of the same ritual.
This little low and sandy isle possesses a well, a few bushes, and
some stunted coconut trees. A fair anchorage is to be found on the
Further north still, at the level of Nhatrang, is
the atoll named "North Danger", the Alerte took possession
of two sandy islands (cayes) where it found some Japanese fishing.
The De Lanessan went there too and explored the little island. The
latter is perceptibly higher than the others, the highest point
reaching 5 metres. The phosphate beds are considerable and were
much exploited by the Japanese.
After possession had been taken, the French Ministry
of Foreign Affairs published the following notice in the French
Journal Officiel dated July 26, 1933 (page 7837)
"Notice concerning the occupation of certain
islands by French naval units.
The French government has caused the under mentioned
isles and islets to be occupied by French naval units:
1. Spratley Island, situated 8o39' latitude north
and 111o55' longitude east of Greenwich, with its dependent isles
(Possession taken April 13, 1930).
2. Islet caye of Amboine, situated at 7o52' latitude north and 112o55'
longitude east of Greenwich, with its dependent isles (Posssession
taken April 7, 1933).
3. Itu Aba Island situated at latitude 10o2' north and longitude
114o21' east of Greenwich, with its dependent isles (Possession
taken April 10, 1933).
4. Group of two islands situated at latitude 111o29' north and longitude
114o21' east of Greenwich, with their dependent isles (36) (Possession
taken April 10, 1933).
5. Loaita island, situated at latitude 10o42' north and longitude
114o25' east of Greenwith, with its dependent islands (Possession
taken April 12, 1933).
6. Thi Tu Island. situated at latitude 11o7' north and longitude
114ol6' east of Greenwich, with its dependent islands (Possession
taken April 12, 1933).
The above-mentioned isles and islets henceforward
come under French sovereignty (this notice cancels the previous
notice inserted in the Official Journal dated July 25, 1933, page
Notification of the occupation was made by France
to interested countries between July 24 and September 25, 1933.
With the exception of Japan, no State which could have had an interest
in the matter raised any protest against this act. Three powers
in the area remained silent and unconcerned: the United States (then
occupying the Philippines), China, and the Netherlands (then occupying
Indonesia). In Britain, Foreign Under-secretary Butter declared
6 years later that France exercised full sovereignty over the Spratly
archipelago and that all matters relevant to these islands were
primarily a French concern (37).
The Japanese protested the French occupation on the
ground that, in the past, Japanese subjects had carried out exploitation
of phosphate on some of these islands. It was true that Japanese
companies had operated on the Spratlys without the permission and
knowledge of French authorities. But Japan had never made any attempt
toward taking possession of these islands.
In 1939., claims by the Japanese militarist government
then in power assumed a tougher tone: Japan declared that she had
decided to - place the Spratly or Tempest Islands off the coast
of Indoch'na under Japanese jurisdiction -. The decision first appeared
merely on paper, but was followed two years later by forcible military
occupation of the archipelago (1941).
In any case, in the San Francisco Peace Treaty of
1951, Japan relinquished all titles and claims to the Paracel and
It should also be noted that the French occupation
of the Spratly Islands in 1933 did not arouse any protest from the
United States government, which was then acting on behalf of the
Philippines. Five years earlier, the United States did engage in
a dispute with the Netherlands over the island of Palmas off the
Philippine coast (38). Since the United States did not act where
a Philippine claim could have been made, this indicates that there
was no ground for a challenge of French rights on behalf of the
Philippines. It was only 35 years after the French took possession
of the Spratly Islands that Philippine troops, taking advantage
of the war situation in the Republic of Vietnam, surreptitiously
occupied some islands in the Vietnamese archipelago:
- Loai Ta 10o41'N - 114o25'E
- Thi Tu 11o03'N - 114ol7'E
- Song Tu Dong 11o27'N - 114o21'E
All of these three islands are in the list of islands
published in the French Official Journal of July 26, 1933 which
recorded the possession of the Spratlys by French naval units. The
present position of the Philippine government that these islands
are not part of the Spratly archipelago but only res nuilius when
Philippine troops occupied them is, therefore, obviously erroneous.
All three islands (which were artificially given
Malayo-Spanish sounding names) are an integral part of the Vietnamese
Truong Sa archipelago. Moreover, it remains to be determined in
a common and friendly spirit whether or not some other, smaller,
islands occupied by Philippine soldiers are dependent islets of
these Vietnamese main islands. In this regard, it should be recalled
here that when the French took possession of the Spratlys, they
only listed the major islands in the official act and indicated
that these islands were incorporated - with their dependent islets.
The Philippine government has also argued that the
remaining islands of the Spratly archipelago (i.e., those not occupied
by Philippine troops) are still -subject to the disposition of Allies
in the past world war-. According to this theory, when Japan relinquished
its rights over the Spratlys by the San Francisco Peace Treaty,
its jurisdiction was assumed by the Allied powers who have,not yet
ceded the archipelago to any particular country.
No reasoning can be more disputable, since the Spratlys
were already and fully part of Vietnamese territory before World
War II. These islands were merely seized militarily by Japan and,
just like Mindoro or Guam, must simplv return to their legitimate
owner. It is obvious that military occupation by Japan could not
result in any transfer of sovereignty over those islands and that
Vietnam was ipso facto reinstated in her lawful rights after the
defeat of Japan. In the San Francisco Peace Treaty, it was simply
"Japan renounces all right, title and claim
to the Spratly Islands and to the Paracel Islands."
Previously, the Cairo Declaration (1943) the Yalta
Agreement and the Potsdam Declaration (1945), which are the basic
documents for postwar territorial settlements, contained no clause
contrary to the sovereignty of Vietnam over both archipelagoes.
There have not been any other legal texts that attribute these territories
to any country - as was correctly pointed out by the Philippine
government. Thus, all sovereign rights must be returned to their
legal titular, i.e., Vietnam which, since 1949 had inherited (or
rather retaken) all of the former French rights over these territories.
Therefore, the short clause about the Paracels and Spratlys in the
San Francisco Peace Treaty was merely designed to confirm that Japan
withdrew all her claims in earlier disputes with France.
It is to the credit of the Philippine government
that it has not associated itself with the burlesque adventure of
one of its private citizens, Mr. Tomas Cloma, who has prt,ended
to - discover - the Vietnamese Truong Sa islands in 1956 and has
proclaimed an independent - Freedomland - covering most of this
archipelago (39). But the fact remains that Philippine troops are
presently stationed on some of the islands described by Mr. Cloma
as part of K Freedomland v. This matter must be settled in accordance
with international law and the Charter of the United Nations. The
Vietnamese people are entirely confident that the legal and peaceful
channels available to solve such disputes will confirm the legitimacy
of their rights.
Regarding China, it must be stressed that few people
have had knowledge of any Chinese claims over the Spratlys in the
past (40). In a sudden move on August. 24, 1951, Netv China in Peking
attacked both French and Philippine claims regarding these islands
and stated that they must be considered to be - outposts of Chinese
national territory -. Subsequently, the People's Republic of China
continued to issue statements filled with threats to use force in
order to seize the Truong Sa archipelago (41).
But it was the Republic of China's government which
took the initiative and sent troops from Taiwan to occupy Thai Binh
Island (Itu-Aba) on June 8, 1956. Itu-Aba is the largest island
of the Spratlys and thus was a kind of - capital - where all French
services were centered. As late as December 1973, the Far Eastern
Economic Review of Hongkong reported that a marker still stood there
with the inscription: (France - Ile ItuAba et Dependances - 10 Aouit
1933 - (42).
Exercise of normal state authority
The headquarters of a French administrative officer,
who also commanded a guard detachment ' was located on Itu Aba Island.
Because of the isolation and the hard living conditions on the island,
only volunteers to the post were sent there. Sometimes, no government
official would volunteer, so the Indochinese authorities had to
recruit private citizens by means of contracts which lasted one
These contracts contained generous allowances and
other largesses in an attempt to retain volunteers on the island.
One of the a "contract officials," was Mr. Burollaud who
held out for 2 years (1938-1940). It was apparently difficult to
find a successor for Mr. Burollaud, since the Governor General in
Hanoi had to send a note dated August 22, 1940 throughout Indochina
(and to the French possession of Kouang-Tcheou-Wan in ichina) to
look for a volunteer - who must be a European.
The official finally recruited turned-out to be most
unlucky, since, according to an eyewitness named Tran Van Manh who
was serving at that time with the Itu-Aba Meteorological Station,
he was seized and tied to the flag pole by Japanese troops occupying
the Spratlys in 1941 (43).
Regarding administrative organization, 3 months after
the official incorporation of the Spratlys, the Governor General
of Indochina signed Decree No. 4762-CP dated December 21, 1933 making
the archipelago a part of the Cochinchinese province of Ba-Ria.
After Cochinchina was returned to Vietnam, this organization was
confirmed in 1956 bv a Decree of the President of the Republic of
Seventeen years later, the Spratlys were attached
to a village of the same province (the name of which had in the
meantime changed to Phuoc Tuy), the village of Phuoc Hai, Dat Do
district (45). State activities on the Spratlys were necessarily
restricted because the islands were uninhabited and situated too
far away from the mainland. In 1938, the Indochina Meteorological
Service set up a weather station on Itu-Aba, which was considered
the best place in the South China Sea to provide meteorological
data for neigbouring countries.
The Station functioned in French hands for over 3
years after which it was reported to have continued operations under
Japanese military occupation. Before the Japanese seizure, the Itu-Aba
station was important enough to be given an international code number:
48919. Data provided by the Station were recorded all over the world
qnd were listed under - French Indochina - Cochinchina,,. The French
also continued scientific surveys of the Spratlys after 1933. For
instance, a valuable geographic and aeologic study of the Spratlys
was made available in the 22nd Report of the Oceanographic Institute
of Indochina (46).
Thus, on behalf of Vietnam, the French conducted
various kinds of activities which substantiate the right to sovereignty
over a territory. These also include diplomatic activities to ensure
the protection of possession by the authority in control. France
defended with success the Spratlys against Japanese aims.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris protested
energetically on April 4, 1939 when Japan announced that she had
"placed the islands under her jurisdiction". France remained
active right until 1956, the year when all her troops finished their
withdrawal from Indochina. ' As late as May 1956, after Mr. Tomas
Cloma created his so-called "Freedomland", the French
Charge d'Affaires in Manila was reported to have reminded the Philippine
government of the French rights resulting from the 1933 occupation
At the same period, the French Navy vessel Dumont
d'Urville made a visit to Itu-Aba in a demonstration of French -
Vietnamese interest in the archipelago. The Republic of Vietnam's
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for its part, issued a statement on
June 1, 1956 recalling the Vietnamese rights. Two weeks later, Foreign
Minister Vu Van Mau of the Republic of Vietnam reaffirmed at length
the rightful position of his country (48). He recalled, among other
facts, that five years earlier the head of the Vietnamese Delegation
at the San Francisco Peace Conference had solemnly reaffirmed Vietnamese
sovereignty over the Truong Sa archipelago and that the statement
was not challenged by any participating country, including China
and the Philippines.
From 1956 on, in the face of Chinese and Philippine
groundless pretenses, the Republic of Vietnam's Navy began to launch
various operations to reassert control over the Truong Sa Islands.
Crewmembers erected sovereignty steles on almost all of them and
built poles to hoist the Vietnamese flag.
The cruiser Tuy Dong (HQ-04) was assigned these missions
in August 1956. In 1961, the two cruisers Van Kiep and Van Don landed
on the islands of Song Tu Tay (South-West Cay) Thi Tu, Loai Ta and
An Bang. Two other islands, Truong Sa (Spratly proper) and Nam Ai
(Nam Yit) were visited the following year by the cruisers Tuy Dong
and Tay Ket. Finally, in 1963, all of the sovereignty steles on
the main islands were systematically rebuilt by crew members of
the three vessels Huong Giang, Chi Lang and Ky Hoa:
- May 19, 1963 steles on Truong Sa Island (Spratly
- May 20, 1963 steles on An Bang Island
- May 22, 1963 steles on Thi Tu and Loai Ta Islands
- May 24, 1963 steles on Song Tu Dong (North East Cay) and Song
Tu Tay (South West Cay).
The pace of these patrol and control operations were
reduced after 1963 due to the war situation in the Republic of Vietnam.
That does not mean, however, that Vietnamese rights on the Truong
Sa archipelago have been diminished, even if foreign powers were
then able to take advantage of the situation to commit illegal intrusion
in some of these islands.
These rights had been openly established in the name
of Vietnam when the French incorporated the archipelago into Indochina.
Moreover, these territories were traditionally known and frequented
by Vietnamese in the past. The French action of 1933 was entirely
in conformity with international rule and practice. It was challenged
by no one except Japan, who later relinquished all her claims.
An effective presence and a peaceful exercise of
sovereignty have been firmly assured. This has only been interrupted
once and temporarily when Japan seized the Truong Sa Islands by
force in 1941. As in the case of the Hoang Sa Islands, a foreign
military presence has not and will not break the will of the Vietnamese
to remain as the owner of all their territories. Therefore, let
it be reminded that the islands now illegally occupied by foreign
troops are indivisible parts of the Truong Sa archipelago which
belong to the Vietnamese people.