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Sovereignty over Paracel and Spratly Archipelagoes

International law and sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes (Part 6)

Part 6: China’s ungrounded arguments about sovereignty

 The third fact: Wu Sheng, the Vice-Admiral of Guangdong conducted sea patrols around the 49th – 51st years of the Qing Dynasty (i.e. from 1710-1712). Wu Sheng “set out himself from Qiongya, proceeding to Tonggu, Qizhouyang, and Sigengsha, making a three-thousand-mile tour of inspection. Qizhouyang is the present-day Xisha archipelago, which was then in charge of Guangdong naval units’ patrols.”

However, serious studies give us a quite different truth. All the names of localities mentioned in the above excerpt are located around Hainan Island, according to Vietnamese authors [1]:

–  Qiongya, i.e. “the Military region of Qiongya” (Hainan Island) under the Qing dynasty is located at Qiongshan, near present-day Haikou town, north of Hainan Island.
– Tonggu is located at the northeast peak of Hainan Island.
– Qizhouyang is a sea area with seven isles called as Quizhou, located in the east of Hainan Island.
– Sigengsha is a sand bank located in the west of Hainan Island. The voyages of Zheng He (1405-1443) are not mentioned to in the White Paper of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Documentary photo

All the above names of localities can be found in Chinese maritime maps. The 1:500,000 scale sea map, which was published by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in both Chinese and Vietnamese languages in 1956 with the title “Areas adjacent to Leizhou and Hainan Island,” and the maps “Leizhou Peninsula and Hainan Island” and “A topographical map of Nanhai” of 1:300,000,000 scale published by China in May 1984, show a group of isles called Qizhouliedao and the sea waters around them, southeast of Hainan Island exactly called Qizhouyang. Apparently, this name does not refer to the entire sea in the South of China. Besides, in his book “Geography of Guangdong” published in 1909, Li Hanzhung also mentioned to the sea patrols of naval units of Guangdong as follows:

“Today, the sea border line is limited to the southern Hainan Island, beyond this limit is Quizhouyang. Navy Admiral of Guangdong stops his patrol there and returns.”
Here again, we do not find any exact record of the Paracel Islands under the name Xisha.

Furthermore, the management activities cited by China, if true, only relate to the islands of Xisha without any mention to the islands of Nansha. As for Spratlys, China only mentions to a single fact in 1883 when the German research vessel conducting a scientific research in the Nansha Islands, it was opposed by the Guangdong authorities (which, according to Heinzig, the event related to Xisha rather than Nansha). The fact that China lacks a title of ownership in the name of the state firmly established for a long time makes its diplomatic protest on the basis of an acquisition right by prescription to prevent such activity no longer valid. To be more precise, China’s protest could only be seen as a claim to sovereignty.

To prove their arguments, the Chinese authors cite the voyages of eunuch Zheng He between 1405 – 1433 by these islands. However, these voyages were not mentioned later in the White Paper of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Zheng He’s voyages to Java, India and the African coast only created prestige for the Ming Dynasty [2], and Zheng He made no claim to create title of ownership of any island on behalf of the Chinese Court [3].

The above-cited examples only created identification of the islands, or more precisely, some of the islands. If the islands in the East Sea known to Chinese sailors and fishermen is indisputable, the affirmation of China’s sovereignty over the islands based on this fact is hard to convince. In the books and documents cited by China, there is no record of the right of discovery or any consolidation of ownership title of these islands and, in essence, no will to exercise the sovereignty over these islands was shown.

The above events took place with an interruption of about 200-500 years. This clearly weakens further the China’s arguments, in accordance with which, the Chinese emperors had exercised management of these islands for two thousand years in a continuous and uninterrupted manner. In order to prove the sovereignty, evidence directly related to possession needs to be provided. D.L Bennett, an American lawyer, commented:

“If the islands were neither administered by the government nor visited by government officials, the questions arises as to whether isolated contacts by individual Chinese fishermen are sufficient to establish sovereignty over the Spratleys under international law. Thus the validity of the PRC’s official position is subject to doubt [4].

By Dr. Nguyễn Hồng Thao

[1] Vũ Hoàng Phi, The Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa archipelagoes are territory of Vietnam, the People’s Army Publishing House, Hanoi, p. 88, Nguyễn Quang Ngọc, the cited book.
[2] BBC, 27 November 2008
[3] In 2005 China made much propaganda about Zheng He, organizing the contest “Chinese Language Bridge” to commemorate his voyages, calling him the great maritime navigator equal to Colombo in order to link his voyages with the right of discovery.
[4] D.L. Bennett, “The People’s Republic of China and the Use of International Law in the Spratly Islands Dispute,” Stanford Journal of International Law, vol. 28 (1991-1992), p. 435.

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