White Paper on the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands

Republic of Vietnam

Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Saigon, 1975

 

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CHAPTER III

 

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) 310 nm.

- 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 in cement.

 

"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 in diameter.

 

"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 southern bank."

 

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 7784).

 

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 Spratly Islands.

 

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 said that:

 

"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 year.

 

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 Vietnam (44).

 

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 (47).

 

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 proper)
- 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.

 

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