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Sovereignty over Paracel and Spratly Archipelagoes

International law and the sovereignty over Paracel, Spratly archipelagoes (Part 1)

The sovereignty dispute over the Paracels and Spratlys archipelagoes of Vietnam is the longest and most complicated one in the vastest area of the sea with the largest number of islands and involving most parties concerned in the history of disputes in the world. The dispute captures the greatest attention researchers and consumes most ink and papers in recent time in order to seek a just and acceptable solution.

With a view to providing further information related to this issue, The Thanh Nien (Youth Newspaper) would like to introduce the research work on international law and the sovereignty over the Paracels and Spratlys archipelagoes of Dr. Nguyen Hong Thao. The main contents published herein are taken from the book “Vietnam and the Maritime Disputes in the East Sea (South China Sea)” by Dr. Nguyen Hong Thao.

The book was awarded the International Prize INDEMER-2000 by the Institute of Economic Law of the Sea, Monaco, for the best legal work written in French in 1996-2000. The Vietnamese translation of the book done by its author is faithfully adhered to the French version with a number of updated events.

Part 1 – The complicated dispute

The sovereignty dispute over the two archipelagoes of the Paracels and the Spratlys (or Hoang Sa and Truong Sa in Vietnamese names, or Xisha and Nansha in Chinese names) located in the middle of the East Sea has existed for hundreds of years. It is the oldest dispute among many countries that have claimed sovereignty over the islands, a dispute which has lasted untill today without any sustainable legal solution in sight.

It is even more complicated in a sense that the dispute now fiercely flared up, now calmed down with complicated changes from the parties directly involved therein. At first, the dispute is directly related to the islands only. However, owing to their geographical location which allows coastal countries to possess them not only to control the passage of goods in the East Sea, but also use them as the first naval bases for defense purposes.

The rival now bears different scales and aspects proceeding from the recent rapid development of the International Law of the Sea and the possibility of detecting exploitable oil fields under the seabed of the two archipelagoes. The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which took effect in 1994 allows the coastal states to have the right to extend the territorial sea to 12 nautical miles, the exclusive economic zone to 200 nautical miles and the continental shelf.

The development of international law of the sea has brought about a lot of benefits to coastal states, such as the possibility to exploit the natural resources from the sea: oil and gas, marine resources and minerals, but it has also given rise to the problem of demarcating the territorial sea and continental shelf among states having overlapping sea waters. Resolving the problem of maritime demarcation has been always associated with disputes over territories and islands.

Under the provisions of the 1982 UNCLOS, islands and rocks can have either the territorial sea of 12 nautical miles, the exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles and the continental shelf or only 12 nautical miles of the territorial sea based on a number of certain conditions.

Such ambiguous provisions of the Convention further complicate the sovereignty dispute over the two archipelagoes. If the islands belonging to the two archipelagoes have their own exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, then with their position in the middle of the sea, they will bring the owner-state the right to control most of the East Sea.

It also shows the picture of overlapping claims of the countries in the East Sea  that demands a settlement. If the islands belonging to the two archipelagoes only have the territorial sea of 12 nautical miles, the waters of these islands will not overlap the continental shelves and exclusive economic zones of other countries, thus reducing the disputes.

In fact, the dispute is further complicated mainly because of aspirations of the coastal countries that want a number of offshore, uninhabited islands and rocks to enjoy full legal status of an island. It is true that the new international maritime law allows coastal states to claim a continental shelf and an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles wide around the islands floating regularly at high tide. But the fact remains that islands which are not suitable for people to dwell in or provide a separate economic life may claim the same status as above ([1]). The modern maritime law adds more geo-strategic value to the two archipelagoes and the dispute among the parties concerned is the one over the new geo-strategic role of the two archipelagoes.

The dispute over the East Sea, besides the significance of territorial sovereignty and strategic interests, is also the right to possess and exploit the natural resources, especially the oil reserves. The sovereignty dispute over the islands and waters are not easily resolved because it relates to not only legal factors, but also historical ones, national will and economy.

Now, the objective of the prolonged dispute is not only limited to the main islands, but extended to the vast sea areas around them in order to control all or part of this sea. The sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa was determined  by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan made similar claims. As for Truong Sa, the Philippines only jumped in from 1956, Malaysia from 1979, and Brunei from 1993, with a claim for a small part.

by Dr. Nguyễn Hồng Thao

[1] See Article 121, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Publishing House National Politics, Hanoi, 1993, p. 94.

Source: Thanh Nien News

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