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Observers' Seat

Saigon - Hanoi - Paracels Islands Dispute - 1974

Observer: Frank Ching  (Far Eastern Economic Review, Feb. 10, 1994)


Few governments are prepared to admit that they have made a mistake, even when their own policies make it glaringly obvious. Take Vietnam.

Even though the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has abandoned socialism in everything but name, it remains reluctant to acknowledge this. The free-market policies it has been pursuing, however, say otherwise.

During the war years, the battles against American and South Vietnamese troops were fought in the name of socialism and received the support of the entire communist world, Beijing and Moscow in particular. Those battles exacted a heavy toll in national blood and treasure, a price the Vietnamese continue to pay to this day as they belatedly try to put economic development ahead of political ideology.

For that ideology in the past led Hanoi to adopt policies that in retrospect do not appear to have been the wisest. And the ideological contortions involved did more than just lead them into embarrassing accommodations of their principal communist allies, Moscow and Beijing. It also blinded them to the sometimes more principled stands taken by the enemy government in Saigon.


In those days, Hanoi was fond of denouncing South Vietnamese officials as puppets of the United States who had sold out the interests of the Vietnamese people. Even then, it was clear that the charge did not always hold water. Now, 20 years later, it is clear that there were times when the Saigon administration in fact stood up for Vietnamese interests far more staunchly than did the government in Hanoi.

A case in point is the dispute over the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The Paracels, like the Spratlys further North, are claimed by both China and Vietnam. But when Hanoi was receiving aid from Beijing, it muted its claim to the Paracels. The islands were seized by China after a military clash in January 1974, during which Chinese troops bested the South Vietnamese defenders. Since then, the islands have been under Chinese control.

After the Vietnam war ended, there was a rapid falling out between Beijing and Hanoi, and the government of the latter - recently reunified with the South - re-asserted a Vietnamese claim to the Paracels. Despite high-level talks between the two countries, this dispute remains unresolved. Specialists from the two sides are expected to meet soon to discuss specific issues, but no overall settlement is likely. In fact, a senior Vietnamese official acknowledged that the issue would have to be solved by future generations.

Without prejudging the merits of either side's claims, it is obvious that the Vietnamese case was weakened by Hanoi's silence when Chinese troops seized the Paracels. Hanoi's failure to protest in the face of foreign military action is now used against Vietnam whenever the subject is raised.

Vietnamese officials today explain their silence at the time by saying that they were dependent on China for aid in the war against the U.S., which was the principal adversary. So it is certainly ironic that, as soon as the war ended, so did the friendship between Hanoi and Beijing.

Adding to the irony are the new contortions Hanoi must go through in advancing its claims to the Paracels. Because of its past acquiescence, Hanoi is forced to refer not to its own public statements from the 1950s to the 1970s but to Saigon statements – in effect, legitimizing the South Vietnamese government. For as early as 1956 the Saigon government issued a communique reaffirming its ownership of the Paracels and the Spratlys.

Saigon also issued decrees appointing administrators of the Paracels. Up until its defeat by Chinese forces in 1974 (only months before South Vietnam itself fell before the communist onslaught from the North), the Saigon government continued to assert Vietnamese sovereignty over the Paracels.

Over the past few years, Indonesia had sponsored ostensibly non-governmental workshops on the South China Sea. At these periodic workshops the Vietnamese again find themselves embarrassed when asked to explain their silence back when China grabbed what Vietnam now claims was a chunk of its territory. "During this period," they say, "there were the complex political and social situation in Vietnam as well as in the world, of which China took advantage, step by step, occupying by forces the Hoang Sa [Paracel] archipelago. And China encroached upon the whole Hoang Sa archipelago in January 1974."

With the advantage of two decades of history, it should now be possible to assess the acts of the South Vietnamese administration with a more dispassionate eye. In the interests of healing the wounds of war if nothing else, it may be wise for Hanoi to re-examine the record and accord credit where credit may be due. And the Saigon administration's vigorous defense of Vietnam's claims to the Paracels at a time when Hanoi was busy courting China's favor stands out as an act that should be acknowledged.

The late Ho Chi Minh was once asked whether he was pro-Soviet or pro-China. He responded that he was pro-Vietnam. It is now time for Hanoi to acknowledge that there were times when the Saigon administration was more pro-Vietnam than the government in the North.

Background on the claims of the said islands:

What happened after Ho has Mao's army and cadres taken the power in NVN.

1. Selling the Paracel and Spratly islands :

Vietnam claimed sovereignty over the "Hoang Sa and Truong Sa Archipelagoes" basing on old documents and especially, Ly Qui Don's "Phu Bien Tap Luc". Vietnam called them Hoa`ng Sa (Paracels) and Tru+o+`ng Sa (Spratleys); China called them Ta^y Sa (the Xisha) and Nam Sa (Nansha) islands. Vietnamese clashed with the People's Republic of China on 19/1/1974 whereby a former South Vietnam Navy's big boat was sunk and 40 Viet men were captured. In 3/1988, PRC came and sunk 3 Viet boats; 72 men were killed and 9 captured. On 25/2/1992, PRC declared Truong Sa or Spratly Islands were theirs.

The main reason for China to do this was known before as part of the plan called "Survival Space" (Kho^ng gian sinh to^`n) because resources of the two areas, Manchuria and Tian Shan (Tan Cuong), would be depleted soon. To do this, China started with the easiest part - what Viet communists did promise before. It means China based on a secret deal in the past. In Reuter's news of 30/12/93, Viet commies denied this secret deal but didn't give any explanation why not. Le Duc Anh visited China and got delay of the conflict for 50 years. Did China stand Anh's ungratitudeand past promise ?

Vietnamese communists sell the Paracel and Spratly islands, but now want to say no.

According to Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs's "China's Indisputable Sovereignty Over the Xisha and Nansha Islands" (Beijing Review, Feb. 18, 1980), Hanoi has "settled" this matter with the Chinese in the past. They basically claimed:

- In June 1956, two years after Ho Chi Minh's government was re-established in Hanoi, North Vietnamese Vice Foreign Minister Ung Van Khien said to Li Zhimin, Charge d'Affaires of the Chinese Embassy in North Vietnam, that "according to Vietnamese data, the Xisha (Ta^y Sa= Hoa`ng Sa = Paracels) and Nansha (Nam Sa = Tru+o+`ng Sa = Spratleys) islands are historically part of Chinese territory."

- On September 4, 1958, the Chinese Government proclaimed the breadth of its territorial sea to be twelve nautical miles which applied to to all territories of the PRC, "including ... the Dongsha Islands, the Xisha Islands, the Zhongsha Islands, the Nansha Islands..." Ten days later, Pham Van Dong stated in his note to Zhou Enlai that "the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam recognizes and supports the declaration of the Government of the People's Republic of China on China's territorial sea made on September 4, 1958."


One more thing to notice is that PRC threatened only the territories Vietnamese claimed and left open claims of other countries. It was very clear that Mr Ho Chi Minh, through Pham Van Dong, gave PRC "a big pie" because at that time Mr Ho Chi Minh was preparing for invading South Vietnam. Mr Ho needed colossal aids and closed eyes to accept all conditions of Beijing. It was easy for him to sell "only on paper" two archipelagoes which still belonged to South Vietnam by then.

For this, Vietnamese communists waited for a meeting of ASEAN countries in Manila, used this opportunity as a safe buoy and signed right away a paper requiring these countries to help Vietnam to solve this problem "fairly".

To its part, after taking islands of communist Vietnam, China showed amicability to Malaysia and Philippines and said that China was ready to negotiate resourceful areas with these two countries, brushing VC aside. China did say that it would not accept any foreign countries to get involved in this matter between it and communist Vietnam.

Later, Pham Van Dong denied his past wrongdoing in an issue of Far Eastern Economic Review, March 16, 1979. Basically, he said the reason he did was because it was "wartime". Here's excerpt from this article on p. 11 :

"According to Li (Chinese Vice-Premier Li Xiannian), China was ready to share the gulf's water "half and half" with the Vietnamese, but at the negotiating table, Hanoi drew the line of Vietnamese control close to Hainan island. Li also said that in 1956 (or 1958 ?), Vietnamese

Premier Pham Van Dong supported a Chinese statement about sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel islands, but since late 1975, Vietnam has been in control of part of the Spratly group - the Paracels being under Chinese control. In 1977, Dong reportedly said of his 1956 stance :"That was the war period and I had to say that".

Because of eagerness to create disastrous war for both areas North and South, and to contribute to international communism, Mr Ho Chi Minh did promise, without dignity, a "future" land for Chinese to grab, not knowing for sure that whether or not the South Vietnam would be swallowed.

As Dong said, "That was the war period and I had to say that". Who created the Vietnam War and ready to do all it could to get South Vietnam even to sell land ? Selling land during the war time and when it was over Pham Van Dong Dong denied it by just laying falsely the blame on the war.

4) In "The Sino-Vietnamese Territorial Dispute" by Pao-min Chang in The Washington Papers/118, foreword by Douglas Pike, published with The Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University, Washington D.C. Apart from the geographical distance, both island groups lay off the South Vietnamese coast still under jurisdiction of the hostile Saigon regime.

Hanoi was simply in no position to challenge both Chinese claims and US Sea power at the same time. Thus, on June 15, 1956, Premier Pham Van DDong reportedly said to China :"From the historical point of view, these islands are Chinese territory" (Beijing Review March 30, 1979, p.20 –


Also in Far East Economic Review March 16, 1979, p. 11).

In 9/1958, when China, in its declaration extending the breadth of Chinese territorial waters to 12 nautical miles, specified that the decision applied to all Chinese territories, including the Paracels and the Spratlies, Hanoi again went on record to recognize China'sovereignty over the 2 archipelagoes. PVD stated in a note to Chinese leader Zhou Enlai on 14/9/1958 :"The Government of the Democratic Republic of VN recognizes and supports the declaration of the Government of the People's Republic of China on its decision concerning China territorial sea made on 4/9/1958 (see Beijing Review 19/6/1958, p.21 -- Beijing Review 25/8/1979, p.25 --

The existence of such a statement anf its contents were acknowledged in VN in BBC/FE, no. 6189, 9/8/1979, p. 1).) Why ?

Carlyle A. Thayer, author of "Vietnam's Strategic Readjustment," in Stuart Harris and Gary Klintworth, eds., China as a Great Power in the Asia Pacific (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire Pty Ltd., forthcoming 1994):

In pursuing its national interests, Vietnam has undertaken actions which appear highly provocative from China's point of view. For example, during Vietnam's long struggle for independence it made no public protests over Chinese claims to territory in the South China Sea and indeed supported them. Yet after unification Vietnam reversed its stance. In 1975 Vietnam occupied a number of islands in the Spratly archipelago and subsequently pressed territorial claims to the entire South China Sea.

As Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam has admitted:

"Our leaders' previous declaration on the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagoes was made in the following context: At that time, under the 1954 Geneva agreement on Indochina, the territories from the 17th parallel southward including the two archipelagoes were under the control of the South Vietnam administration. Moreover, Vietnam then had to concentrate all its force on the highest goal of resisting the US aggressive war to defend national independence. It had to gain support of friends all over the world. Meanwhile, Sino-Vietnamese relations were very close and the two countries trusted each other. China was according to Vietnam a very great support and valuable assistance. In that context and stemming from the above-said urgent requirement, our leaders' declaration [supporting China's claims to sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands] was necessary because it directly served the fight for the defence of national independence and the freedom of the motherland.

More specifically, it aimed at meeting the then immediate need to prevent the US imperialists from using these islands to attack us. It has nothing to do with the historical and legal foundations of Vietnam's sovereignty over the,Truong Sa and Hoang Sa archipelagoes (remarks to a press conference in Hanoi on 2 December 1992 carried by Vietnam News Agency, 3 December 1992)."

These statements show that all what Chinese have alledged above are true. What happen today related to these 2 islands are merely consequences of the wicked settlement of these 2 communist brothers in the past. No one in the world community want to step in to settle the dispute between Communist Vietnam and PRC. The reason is very clear : diplomatic note and recognition by Vietnamese Communists can't be erased by a small country like VN who has wanted to play a trick cheating China. Moreover, Vietnamese Communists can't stay away from China while they have to follow Chinese "doi moi" to go forward to socialism.

(Far Eastern Economic Review, Feb. 10, 1994)



Observers' Seat

The Spratly Islands dispute

Observer:        Rigby Heinemann 1995


A group of low-lying coral reefs and rocky outcrops in the South China Sea could well become the scene of a major dispute involving six or seven Asian nations. The latest development occurred in February 1995 when the Philippines's armed forces discovered Chinese-built concrete markers and structures on the tiny islands of Mischief Reef, inside waters claimed by the Philippines. Suddenly, it seemed Chinese territory was within 200 kilometres of one of the main Philippine islands, Palawan. The Philippine government retaliated by ordering its air force to destroy the Chinese-built structures. In addition, sixty-two Chinese were arrested by the Philippine navy for fishing within Filipino waters.

These events are the latest in a chain of events stretching back to 1974 when Chinese forces occupied the Paracel Islands to the north of the Spratly Islands.

The Spratly Islands, until recent times, have not supported a permanent population. Currently they are occupied by five nations - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and China (see the Spratly Islands map). Territory is also claimed by Brunei. The occupying countries back their claims with military facilities such as airstrips and armed forces on several islands.

One answer can be found on a map of the South China Sea (see pages 78-79 or 80-81 in the Heinemann Atlas). These maps show the Spratly Islands located at some distance from the larger land masses of South-East Asia. Generally, a nation's territory commonly extends twelve nautical miles from its land borders but up to 200 nautical miles (371 km) as an exclusive economic zone. Within this zone a nation can exercise its right to fish and mine while prohibiting other nations. A nation claiming islands, no matter how insignificant they appear on maps and navigation charts, can effectively extend its resources. It can also influence events in that region - a point not lost on the nations of South-East Asia when military strength is considered to be a valuable asset.

The Spratly Islands are already developing into important fishing grounds for China, Vietnam and the Philippines. In addition, there is the possibility of even more valuable resources: oil and gas. New sources of energy for China as well as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia could further power their expanding economies. China, currently an exporter of oil, may become an importer of oil and gas within a decade unless it finds substantial new resources.

Just how much oil and gas, if any, is in the Spratly Islands region has yet to be determined. Since 1974, Chinese maps include an exclusive economic zone of 371 kilometres around the Spratly Islands. This, in turn, cuts into part of Indonesia's rich gas field based around Natuna Island (see the location map of the Spratly Islands). A joint US$35 billion contract between Indonesia and the US oil company, Exxon, will develop the gas field.

Perhaps the Natuna gas field development holds the solution to the Spratly Islands dispute. It has been suggested by a number of involved parties that 'joint development' of the Spratly Islands is the way to proceed. A council of involved nations could administer navigation, weather reporting, fishing, and oil and gas exploration and production. Any financial benefits could be split according to an agreed formula. However, agreeing on any formula may be seen by some groups as 'giving way' on territorial claims and national sovereignty. Indonesia's annual South China Sea Workshops with the claimant nations may provide the basis for future joint development arrangements.

Classroom Activities

1.Which of the claimant countries is:
a. closest to the Spratly Islands?
b. furthest from the Spratly Islands?

2.Give at least three reasons why countries are interested in claiming the Spratly Islands.

3.Apart from the governments of countries in the region, name two other organisations that are interested in the Spratly Islands. For each organisation, give a reason why they are interested.

4.Which two countries were involved in armed conflict in the Spratly Islands in 1988? What were the results of this conflict?

5.From the table of military strength, decide which country appears to be strongest on land, sea and air. Suggest why smaller countries such as Malaysia and Brunei would like to avoid armed conflict in this region.

6.a. What is one possible advantage that joint development could bring to the nations involved in the Spratly Islands dispute?
b. What is one possible disadvantage that joint development could bring to the nations involved in the Spratly Islands dispute?
c. Do you think the arguments for or against joint development are stronger? Be sure to say why.


World Guide Info
Information about China, Vietnam, Indonesia, The Philippines, and Taiwan from the Reed Interactive World Guide.

A timeline of disputes in the Spratly Islands
This timeline traces disputes in the Spratly Islands from 1939 to 1995.

Spratly Islands
Extract from The World Factbook 1994 which includes geographic, economic and political information.

Asian Studies Network Information Center
This center maintains a comprehensive list of resources on Asia which are updated regularly.

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