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Sovereignty over Paracel and Spratly Archipelagoes

International law and sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes (Part 14)

Part 14: Acquisition of sovereignty over Trường Sa (Spratlys)

For the Trường Sa archipelago, the first specific observations of this area took place between 1867-1868 by the British oceanographic research vessel Riflemean.

Later, the area left abandoned until the scientific reconnaissance carried out by the French ship de Lanessan in the sea area of Trường Sa Islands. The vessel paid much attention to accurately determining maritime conditions for navigating through this area on the straight route from Saigon to Manila (Philippines).

In December 1927, Mr. Kurosawa, Consul General of Japan in Hanoi, inquired the General Governor of Indochina about the territorial status of Trường Sa and other islands. In addition, the results of observation by the ship de Lanessan captured the attention of a new phosphate company of Bắc Kỳ (North Vietnam),  who sent the Governor of Cochinchina a statement dated October 19th, 1928 in respect of the mining research in Trường Sa. These events led France to the review of the fate of the floating islands, which they deemed as no_man ‘s land  (res nullius) until their official occupation.

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Big Trường Sa Island within the Trường Sa archipelago under Vietnam’s sovereignty – Photo: Đỗ Hùng

The campaign for occupation of Trường Sa Island by the ship Malicieuse proposed in October 1929 was put off due to unfavorable weather conditions. Finally, it was implemented on April 13th, 1930.

Three years later, by a notice published in the Official Gazette dated July 26th, 1933, France notified the powers of its intention to expand its sovereignty over all the isles and rocks lying between the 7 – 12 degrees latitude north and west of the American triangular area around the archipelago of the Philippines as planned in the Treaty on December 10th, 1898.

On December 21st, 1933, by Decree N4762-CP, the then Cochinchinese Governor J. Krautheimer merged Trường Sa Island into Bà Rịa province. For France, the occupation of the islands was not based on historical name of Annam as in the case of the Hoàng Sa archipelago, but on the fact that this was a no-man’s territory (res nullius). The occupation of the islands by the French vessels, in essence, was France’s exercise of acquisition of sovereignty if no other nation, in such circumstances, confirmed that they had got the acquisition earlier and had maintained such sovereignty over the islands.

France’s act of declaring the sovereignty over the Trường Sa archipelago would have been of no value should China have ever had a name established there. But unlike the case of the Hoàng Sa archipelago, there had been no signs, either physical or intentional, from the Chinese government concerning the islands before the French occupation. Formally, report of the Chinese government published in Guangzhou in 1928 declared that the terminus of Chinese territory in the south was identified as Xisha (namely Hoàng Sa/Paracel). There was no word about Trường Sa (Spratly) [1].

Furthermore, in France – Vietnam relations, Trường Sa Islands had not been considered as no-man’s land (res nullius) if Vietnam’s claim on the basis of historical name was to be taken into account. The Bắc Hải detachments had been active under the control of the Hoàng Sa detachments in these waters, although their activities weakened from 1852 because the Annamese kings were more concerned with the defense of the mainland provinces against the occupation of France rather than the islands off the coast of Cochinchina.

The legal dispute over Trường Sa Islands would have probably become more complicated if France had reserved the claims over to the islands for itself. But in reality, Vietnam had become the successor of France for the Trường Sa archipelago. The Hạ Long Bay Agreement that was signed in May 1949 transferred to the Vietnamese state France’s sovereignty over Cochichina, including Trường Sa as part of it.

By Dr. Nguyễn Hồng Thao

[1] R.Halleir – Trost, the cited book, p. 39.

Source: Thanh Nien Daily

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