Recently, Vietnam has made quite a few public claims of sovereignty over China’s Xisha Islands. However, according to the Chinese government, the Xisha Islands have always been an integral part of China’s territory and are under no dispute. China perceives that the purpose of Vietnam’s move is to create a dispute where none exists. This article is to help clarify China’s position.
I. Xisha Islands Are an Inherent Part of China’s Territory
China was the first to discover, develop, exploit and exercise jurisdiction over the Xisha Islands. During the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126 AD), the Chinese government had already established jurisdiction over the Xisha Islands and sent naval forces to patrol the waters. In 1909, Commander Li Zhun of the Guangdong naval force of the Qing Dynasty led a military inspection mission to the Xisha Islands and reasserted China’s sovereignty by hoisting the flag and firing a salvo on Yongxing Island, which is the biggest island in the Xisha Island chain. In 1911, the Chinese government announced its decision to put the Xisha Islands and their adjacent waters under the jurisdiction of Ya County of Hainan Island.
In accordance with the Cairo Declaration, the Potsdam Proclamation and the Japanese Instrument of Surrender issued during World War II, the Xisha Islands, which had been invaded and occupied by Japan in 1939, were legally returned to China. The Chinese government sent senior officials boarding military vessels to the Xisha Islands in November 1946 to hold the ceremony for receiving the islands, and a stone tablet was erected to commemorate the handover and troops were stationed there afterwards. The Xisha Islands were thus returned to the jurisdiction of the Chinese government.
In 1959, the Chinese government established the Administration Office for the Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha Islands in the South China Sea. In January 1974, China exercised the right of self-defence enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations to drive the invading army of the Saigon authority of South Vietnam from the Shanhu Island and Ganquan Island of the Xisha Islands and defended China’s territory and sovereignty. The Chinese government enacted the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone in 1992 and published the base points and baselines of the territorial waters of the Xisha Islands in 1996, both of which reaffirm China’s sovereignty over the Xisha Islands and the extent of territorial waters of the islands.
II. Vietnam’s Claims of Sovereignty over China’s Xisha Islands are Contradictory
Prior to 1974, no Vietnamese government had ever challenged China’s sovereignty over the Xisha Islands. Vietnam had officially recognized the Xisha Islands as part of China’s territory. This position was reflected in its government statements and diplomatic notes as well as its newspapers, maps and textbooks.
During a meeting with the chargé d’affaires ad interim Li Zhimin of the Chinese Embassy in Vietnam on 15 June 1956, Vice Foreign Minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam Ung Van Khiem solemnly stated that, “according to Vietnamese data, the Xisha Islands and Nansha Islands are historically part of Chinese territory.” Le Loc, Acting Director of the Asian Department of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, who was present, specifically cited Vietnamese data and pointed out that, “judging from history, these islands were already part of China at the time of the Song Dynasty.”
On 4 September 1958, the Chinese government issued a declaration (see Annex 1/4), stating that the breadth of the territorial waters of the People’s Republic of China shall be 12 nautical miles and making it clear that “this provision applies to all the territories of the People’s Republic of China, including … the Xisha Islands”. On 14 September, Premier Pham Van Dong of the government of Vietnam sent a diplomatic note (see Annex 2/4) to Premier Zhou Enlai of the State Council of China, solemnly stating 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 its decision concerning China’s territorial sea made on September 4, 1958” and “the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam respects this decision”.
On 9 May 1965, the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam issued a statement with reference to the designation by the U.S. government of the “combat zone” of the U.S. armed forces in Vietnam. It says, “U.S. President Lyndon Johnson designated the whole of Vietnam, and the adjacent waters which extend roughly 100 miles from the coast of Vietnam and part of the territorial waters of the People’s Republic of China in its Xisha Islands as ‘combat zone’ of the United States armed forces … in direct threat to the security of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and its neighbors …” .
The World Atlas printed in May 1972 by the Bureau of Survey and Cartography under the Office of the Premier of Vietnam designated the Xisha Islands by their Chinese names (see Annex 3/4) rather than the so-called “Hoang Sa Archipelago”. The geography textbook for ninth graders published by Vietnam’s Educational Press in 1974 carried in it a lesson entitled “The People’s Republic of China” (see Annex 4/4). It reads, “The chain of islands from the Nansha and Xisha Islands to Hainan Island, Taiwan Island, the Penghu Islands and the Zhoushan Islands … are shaped like a bow and constitute a Great Wall defending the China mainland.”
But now the Vietnamese government has gone back on its word by making territorial claims on China’s Xisha Islands. From China’s perspective, that is a violation of the principles of international law, including the principle of estoppel, and the basic norms governing international relations.
It is up to the Vietnamese government to explain why it changed its position.
Lu Yang is a Beijing-based scholar in international relations.
Annex 1/4: Declaration of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on China’s Territorial Sea published on 4 September 1958
Annex 2/4: The note sent on 14 September 1958 by Premier of the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam Pham Van Dong to Premier Zhou Enlai of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China (English Version) (Vietnamese Version)
Annex 3/4: Cover of the World Atlas printed in May 1972 by the Bureau of Survey and Cartography under the Office of the Premier of Vietnam, and the page on the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. (COVER) (MAP)