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Sovereignty over Paracel and Spratly Archipelagoes

International law and sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes (Part 13)

Part 13: Setting the milestone in 1909: Too late!

In August 1907, the Japanese with their ambition occupied the uninhabited islands within Dongsha archipelago, near Guangdong. This posed a direct threat to the security of China. The incident resulted in the opposite turn in China’s attitude toward Hoàng Sa (Paracels), an archipelago that was seen as a springboard for possible use against China.

In late March 1909, the Guangdong authorities sent three officers to visit all the islands lying off the coast of this province to see if “these islands have been claimed by any foreign subject or not?” A description report was submitted upon their return in accordance with which the Paracel included 15 isles with seven of them lying to the west, and eight, to the east. The islands were rich in phosphates, and marine products were plentiful. There were traces of foreigners and the Chinese over the islands [1].

In essence, this survey was an official mission for a field survey by the Chinese side. Following this information, in May 1909, the viceroy of the Dual-Guangs (Guangdong and Guangxi provinces) sent Admiral Li Zhun to Hoàng Sa. The voyage was made to the Hoàng Sa archipelago on June, 6th 1909, then to some other islands, and on June 7th at 4 PM, the two gun-ships returned to Guangzhou [2].

A part of Paracel Islands. Source: Oceandots

A part of Paracel Islands. Source: Oceandots

The People’s Daily (Chinese Newspaper) dated 25 November 1975 commented on this voyage as follows:

“On May 4th, 1909, Admiral Li Zhun and two other Admirals Jingyong and Lia Yike led 170 sailors on board the gunship Fubo went to Xisha. They surveyed 15 islands, named the archipelago as Loshi, planted China’s flag on Yong xing island and sent thunders from their cannons, urgently stating to all, at home and abroad, that the islands in the South sea are part of China’s sacred territory. “

Based on the above excepts, the tours of expedition made by the Chinese in 1909 were a discovery mission of the islands because they performed the symbolic acts in order to declare their rights to occupation of the islands. If not, why they carried out occupation of what they had possessed? France did not protest against the tour of Li Zhun, a trip of a local nature. For France, the display of Admiral Ly Zhun in Hoàng Sa in 1909 was not characteristic of an occupation, but just “a naval ritual on the occasion of an inspection tour” [3]. Cruisers of the French Navy were continued to be sent to the islands [4].

The situation continued freezing till 1921 without any action being taken to consolidate the sovereignty either from the Chinese or the French side. When a Japanese company, Mitsui Bussan Kaisha, enquired the French naval commander in Saigon if the Hoàng Sa Islands were owned by France or not, a wave of concerns spread to the press as well as the public, which forced the colonial authorities in Indochina to review the nationality of the islands. Thân Trọng Huề, the Minister of Military Affairs of the Kingdom of Annam, by the letter dated March 3rd, 1925 affirmed “the small islands have always belonged to Annam and there is nothing to debate about this matter.”

The uncompromising attitude of the Kingdom of An Nam put an end to the hesitation of France. France solemnly affirmed its sovereignty on March 8th, 1925 [5]. Scientific voyages were carried out in Hoàng Sa from 1925, and in Trường Sa (Spratlys) from 1927. In late in 1931, the Guangzhou authorities intended to invite bid for the exploitation of guano on Hoàng Sa Islands. The French government protested against it in a diplomatic note on December 4th, 1931 to the Chinese diplomatic mission, citing the historical title and evidence of occupation of Annam and then of France over the islands.

In 1937, the colonial government sent J. Gauthier, chief military engineer, to  Hoàng Sa to study shelter and anchorage and aviation facilities, installation of lighthouse on Hoàng Sa Island and conditions for possible installation on the Hoàng Sa archipelago. At the same time, in order to reaffirm the sovereignty rights of Annam that had existed before, on March 30th, 1938 (the 29th day of the second month of the 13th year of the Bảo Đại reign) Emperor Bảo Đại issued edict No. 10, deciding the integration of the Hoàng Sa archipelago into the province of Thừa Thiên [6].

This initiative was supported by the Decree of N156S-V dated June 15th, 1938 by Indochinese governor J. Brevie for the establishment of an administrative unit in Hoàng Sa. Later, the French government decided to implement the entire and effective occupation of the islands. A unit of Vietnamese policemen was sent to regularly station there. Sovereignty markers for the Hoàng Sa archipelago were planted with the inscription: “The Republic of France – The Kingdom of An Nam – Hoàng Sa Archipelago, 1816 – Hoàng Sa Island – 1938”.

Evidence showing the regular military camp can be seen in official documents of Emperor Bảo Đại. The official document dated December 15th (the 13th year of the reign of Bảo Đại) is of the content that: On February 2nd, 1939, the French Resident Superior in Central Vietnam, Graffeuil, sent to Phạm Quỳnh, Chief of the Royal Household Secretariat, a letter to apply for King Bảo Đại’s posthumously conferring Long tinh (Dragon) medal of Nam triều (Vietnamese court) to Mr. Louis Fontan, who passed away on that day [7].

Previously, Mr. Louis Fontan held the post of corporal of first-rank of a khố xanh unit (district and provincial guardsmen) stationing in Hoàng Sa.The presence of a unit sent by France to the islands, especially Hữu Nhật, Phú Lâm and Hoàng Sa Islands, was consolidated by the regular visits of the French warships until they were dismissed by the military occupation of Japan of the islands on March 9th, 1945 [8].

With this occupation, France had increased the value of Annam’s rights based on historical name.” With the occupation of the Paracel, France had limited to the affirmation of historical names in conformity with the requirements of modern international law” [9].

By Dr. Nguyễn Hồng Thao

[1] Yang t ch’eng pao, April 22nd , 1909.
[2] P. A. Lapique, the cited book, p. 610.
[3] Diplomatic note of French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Chinese ambassador in Paris on Nov. 23rd, 1936.
[4] P. A. Lapique, the cited book.
[5] J. P. Ferrer, the cited book, p. 182.
[6] Nam Triều quốc ngữ công báo (Gazette of the Vietnamese Court, Issue in August 1938.
[7] One more Official document affirming the sovereignty over Hoàng Sa, Source: Vietnamnet,  11:12 ‘ December 25th, 2009 (GMT +7).
[8] Telegraph dated June 3rd, 1946 from Admiral D’Argenlieu.
[9] Diplomatic note from the Legal Department of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs dated September 6th, 1946. Archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the cited book.

Source: Thanh Nien Daily



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