China’s recent unilateral acts in the East Sea, particularly its illegal placement of the Haiyang Shiyou-981 oil rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty and international law, threatening peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation in the East Sea.
To vindicate its wrong actions, China claims to have evidence proving its sovereignty over Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagoes, which belong to Vietnam .
In this article, we provides readers with historical and legal evidence of Vietnam ’s sovereignty over the two archipelagoes as well as the true nature of China ’s so-called ‘proof’.
Legal historical evidence of Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes
Due to many reasons, such as historical circumstances, wars and poor preservation conditions, many historical documents relating to Vietnam ’s Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes have been damaged or lost. However, even with this setback there is a wealth of existing historical and geographical documentation held by Vietnam which proves that the country discovered the two archipelagoes a long time ago. It occupied and exercised sovereignty over them for at least five centuries, through many dynasties.
The “Tuyen tap Thien Nam Tu Chi Lo Do Thu” (A Route Map from the Capital in the Four Directions) drawn by Do Ba in the 17 th century gave a very accurate description of the two archipelagoes and confirmed that the Nguyen Lords established the Hoang Sa Flotilla to exploit Hoang Sa islands in the 17 th century.
“During the last month of every winter, the Nguyen Lords send a flotilla of 18 boats to Bai Cat Vang (Hoang Sa) to collect goods, and they brought back a large amount of gold, silver, coins, guns and ammunition. It took one day and a half to sail from Dai Chiem river mouth to the islands, but only half a day from Sa Ky ,” the book reads.
The book also cites some writings from the third part of the “Hong Duc Ban Do” (Hong Duc Maps) collection dating from the 15 th century, which read, “In Kim Ho Village, there are two mountains on the two banks of the river, each mountain has a gold mine run by the State. Offshore, an archipelago with long sandbanks rise above the sea, called “Bai Cat Vang” (Golden Sandbank), which is about 400 “li” (a unit of measurement used in ancient Vietnam equivalent to about half a kilometre) in length and 20 “li” in width, facing the coastline between Dai Chiem river mouth and that of Sa Vinh. During the South-West monsoon season, foreign commercial ships sailing along the coast of the sandbanks are often wrecked and run aground there; many boats suffer the same fate during the North-East monsoon season. All those who land on the islands after their ships sank starve to death and the cargo piles up.”
The document indicated that Vietnam discovered or knew about the islands at least as early as the 15 th century.
Hoang Sa and Truong Sa were also recorded in detail in some ancient bibliographies, especially the official documents of the Nguyen Dynasty. “Phu bien tap luc” (Miscellaneous Records of Pacification in the Border Area), written by Le Quy Don in 1776, mentions Vietnam’s exercise of sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes in the 18 th century.
“In Quang Ngai prefecture, offshore An Vinh commune, Binh Son district, there is a mountainous island called Re, which is 30-“dam” wide (dam-an old measurement unit in Vietnam, equivalent to half a kilometre). It takes four “canh” ( Vietnam ’s old measurement unit equivalent to two hours) to reach the island, on which there is a ward named Tu Chinh where residents live on bean-growing. Further offshore are Dai Truong Sa Island, where there used to be plenty of sea products and goods from wrecked ships; the Hoang Sa flotilla was created to gather these things. It takes three days and three nights to reach there. Foreign trade boats usually anchor at the island to take shelter from storm.
“In the past, the Nguyen lords set up the Hoang Sa Flotilla with 70 crew members who were selected among An Vinh villagers. They took turn to sail to sea every March on five small boats, bringing along food quota for six months. They used to reach the islands after a voyage of three days and three nights. In addition, there was a Bac Hai detachment whose members were recruited from Thu Chinh commune in Binh Thuan province or from Canh Duong village. It was sent to Bac Hai areas, the island of Con Lon , and other islands in Ha Tien to gather items from wrecked ships and sea products. The Bac Hai detachment was under the command of the Hoang Sa flotilla,” it wrote.
This document shows that the Hoang Sa and Bac Hai detachments exploited the two archipelagoes from the 17 th to the late 18 th century. Their activities were conducted systematically. The detachments performed their tasks in the islands for eight months each year. Sailors were recruited and paid by the royal court, and performed the tasks at the order of the royal court.
Today, which is hundreds of years later, in the second and third lunar months every year, people in Ly Son Island, central Quang Ngai province, still maintain rituals in commemoration of Hoang Sa soldiers. The annual “Le khao le the linh Hoang Sa” (Feast and Commemoration Festival for Hoang Sa Soldiers) pays tribute to the men enlisted in the flotilla to perform missions at the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagos. They tapped the area’s natural resources and defended national island sovereignty.
Activities organised by the Nguyen Lord to exploit Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes and other islands were also recorded in many other books and documents. Some of them are:
· “Kham dinh Dai Nam hoi dien su le” (Dai Nam Administrative Repertory) and “Lich trieu hien chuong loai chi” (Classified Rules of Dynasties) compiled by Phan Huy Chu
· “Viet su cuong giam khao luoc” (A Brief History of Vietnam) by Nguyen Thong
· “Hoang Viet dia du chi” (Geography of Imperial Vietnam) and “Dai Nam nhat thong chi” (History of the Unified Dai Nam) by the National Historiographer’s Office of the Nguyen Dynasty
· Official documents of the Nguyen Dynasty under the reigns of King Minh Menh (1820-1840) and King Thieu Tri (1841-1847)
Many historical documents also record Vietnam ’s official ownership and exercise of sovereignty over the two archipelagoes in the 19th century. “Dai Nam thuc luc chinh bien” (The Main Part of The Chronicles of Dai Nam) writes that in the Year of the Mouse during the 15 th year of the Gia Long reign (1816), the king commanded the navy and the Hoang Sa flotilla to sail to Hoang Sa archipelago for a sea route survey.
In 1833, King Minh Menh ordered the planting of stone steles, trees and poles as well as the building of a temple on Hoang Sa archipelago. Volume No. 104 of the “Dai Nam thuc luc chinh bien” states, “In the eighth month, during the autumn of the Year of the Snake, the 14 th year of the Minh Menh reign (1833), the king issued an edict to the Ministry of Public Works which read,” In the waters of Quang Ngai, there is the Hoang Sa strip. From a distance, the sky and the sea there have the same colour, which makes it difficult to estimate the depth of the sea. Recently, many trading boats had gone aground there. Now you should prepare junks, and next year send people to the area to build a temple, erect steles and plant trees on this land. When the trees grow up, it is easy for people to see them from afar, thus avoiding running aground. This will benefit many generations”.
Volume No. 122 of the collection wrote, “In the Year of the Horse, the 15 th year of the Minh Menh reign, the king ordered Captain Truong Phuc Si and more than 20 sailors to sail to Hoang Sa to draw a map of the archipelago…”.
Volume No. 154 recorded that in 1835, the building of the temple and the planting of stone steles had been completed.
Volume No. 165 wrote, “The King approved a proposal by the Ministry of Public Works and ordered a Suat Doi (Commander) of the Navy, Pham Huu Nhat, to command a fleet and bring ten wooden steles to be used as markers in the area. Each wooden stele is five “thuoc” long, five “tac” wide and one “tac” thick (one thuoc equivalent to 40cm and one tac, 4cm), and is engraved with the words: “In the 17 th year of the Minh Menh reign, the Year of the Monkey, Commander Pham Huu Nhat of the Navy, complying with the order to go to Hoang Sa for management and survey purposes, arrived here and therefore placed this sign.”
Under the Nguyen Dynasty (the 19 th century), the measurement of sea routes and drawing of maps of Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes were conducted annually by the Ministry of Public Works. In particular, in 1834, the Nguyen court, under the reign of King Minh Menh, completed and officially announced a national map called “Dai Nam nhat thong toan do” (The Complete Map of the Unified Dai Nam). The map featured Vietnam ’s coastline and islands in detail, noting the country’s sovereignty over the archipelagoes in the East Sea .
Before the Minh Menh reign, Hoang Sa and Truong Sa was considered as a single archipelago called Hoang Sa or sometimes Van Ly Truong Sa. However, after King Minh Menh sent working teams to survey and measure the islands, the later map (which is the “Dai Nam nhat thong toan do”) recorded two different names for the two archipelagoes.
In addition to ancient books and official documents, many old maps also indicated that Hoang Sa and Truong Sa belong to Vietnam ’s sovereignty. According to “Dai Viet su ky toan thu” (The Complete History of Dai Viet), as early as in 1467, King Le Thanh Tong ordered topography surveys of localities to draw a national map. The Hong Duc Maps collection, which was completed in 1469 and then supplemented many times, comprises a national map and maps of localities featuring the country’s seas and islands.
Internationally recognised historical and legal proof of Vietnam’s sovereignty
From the 16 th century, there were many publication and maps drawn by Western navigators which depicted the archipelago in the middle of the East Sea called “Pracel”, “Paracel” or “Paracels” as belonging to Vietnam ’s sovereignty.
The “World Map” of Mercator, published in Amsterdam , the Netherlands in 1606 named the archipelago in the middle of the East Sea Baixos de Chapar (the Shoal of Champa) or Pulo Capaa (the Islands of Champa).
Maps drawn by Bartholomeu Lasso in 1590 and between 1592-1594 which were published in the “Les Portugains sur les cotes du Vietnam et du Campa” collection of P.Y.Manguim in Paris in 1972, and a famous map drawn by Van Langren in 1598, which is included in the “Iconographie Historique de l’Indochine” by P. Boudet and A. Masson, published in Paris in 1931, all show a stretch of coastline corresponding to the area from the Dai Chien river mouth in Quang Nam province to Sa Ky river moutn in Quang Ngai province, under the name of “Costa da Pracel” (the Coast of Paracel).
A map drawn by Jodocus Hondius in 1613 shows the ‘Pracel’ (Hoang Sa) archipelago as encompassing all islands of Vietnam from the south of the Tonkin Gulf to the end of the country’s southern waters, except for Pulo Condor (Con Dao) and Pulo Cici (Phu Quoc) which were drawn separately.
In particular, “An Nam Dai quoc hoa do” (The Map of the Great Country of An Nam) made by Bishop Jean Louis Taberd and published in 1838 is said to reflect in-depth and precise knowledge of Western people about the relationship between Hoang Sa archipelago and Dai Viet, which the author called An Nam Dai Quoc (The Great Country of An Nam) from the 15 th to early 19 th centuries. The map affirmed that Cat Vang (Hoang Sa) is the Paracels and is located within the waters of Vietnam .
“The Times Atlas of the World”, or the Atlas in short, includes a map clearly named as “the map of the Dang Trong area” (the central part of Vietnam ). The territory of the Empire of An Nam (the former name of Vietnam ) is featured in four maps. A summary introduction about the Empire of An Nam is attached besides the Hoang Sa archipelago in the map, affirming that the archipelago is part of the Dang Trong area, which belongs to the present-day Vietnam .
Maps in the atlas demonstrate that China ’s southernmost boundary does not reach the 18 th parallel. All maps published by China up to the first decade of the 20 th century are also consistent with Western maps, and none of them depict China ’s southernmost territory beyond the 18 th parallel. It stops at Hainan Islands .
Thus, Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes is acquired by two means: the historical right deriving from the long-lasting use and occupation of an ownerless territory under the time of the Nguyen Lords from the 17 th to the 18 th century and the sovereignty formed from the official occupation and uninterrupted exercise of sovereign under the Nguyen Dynasty in the 19 th century.
Following the Nguyen Dynasty’s exercise of sovereignty, during the period of French colonisation in Vietnam (from the late 19 th century to the first half of the 20 th century), in the 1945-1975 period, and since national reunification in 1975, Vietnam has always maintained its exercise of sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa as well as its real management and exploitation of the archipelagoes.
The truth about the sovereignty claims of China:
Facing historical and legal evidence provided by Vietnam to prove her sovereignty over both Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes, several Chinese scholars and officials have quoted ancient documents in an attempt to prove their country’s discovery of the archipelagoes and the exercise of sovereignty there. They cited books such as “ Hou Han Shu ”(Book of Later Han) and “ Yi Wu Zhi ” (Records of strange things) from the Han era and “ Zhu Fan Zhi ” (Notes on foreign countries) (the 13th century), “ Hai Lu ” (Oceanic records) by Yang Ping-nan (1820-1842), Nanzhou Yi wu zhi (Exotic things of the Southern region), Daoyi Zhilue (Overview of barbarous island countries), Guangdong Tongzhi (General Records of Guangdong province)… to prove that China discovered and exercised its sovereignty in Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes from an early date.
But in fact, the excerpts extracted from China’s historical documents dating back before the 13 th century and cited by Chinese scholars do not mention the name of any particular island, but only the Nanhai. In addition, in those quoted pieces, the two archipelagoes were described only as physical landmarks observed by navigators during their voyages crossing the East Sea . Only from the 13th century, the quoted pieces mentioned the name of some islands, but there were no such names as ‘Xi Sha’ and ‘Nan Sha’ (the names China gives to Hoang Sa and Truong Sa in Vietnam ).
Some later historical sources described inspection, expeditionary and exploration trips China conducted in the region, including Hoang Sa and Truong Sa. In particular, China argued that under the Ming dynasty in the 15 th century, explorer Zhenghe made seven journeys crossing the East Sea and after that he put the name of the two archipelagoes on the map. However, those trips were not intended to claim land. They in fact were meant to explore the sea to get a deeper understanding of its being, seek trade partners and show off force to regional countries. China cannot name any historical book that testifies to its sovereignty over the two archipelagoes. Even in its historical documents in the 19 th century, when Vietnam ’s Nguyen Kings declared their ownership and exercise of sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa, the two archipelagoes were only described as things seen accidently by Chinese ships on their journey passing the East Sea .
It was noticeable that China’s ancient documents, such as Qiongzhou fu zhi (Geography of Qiongzhou), Guangdong sheng zhi (1731-Geography of Guangdong), Hoang Chao Yitong Yudi Zongtu (Chinese map of the unified empire) in 1894.., all described and stated clearly that China’s southernmost point was Hainan. In the Zhongguo Sihixue Jiao Keshu (Chinese Textbook of Geography), published in 1906, page 241 reads “the southernmost point of China is the Jie Zhou coast, Qiongzhou island, at 18 degrees 13 minutes north latitude”.
More than that, there are documents that implicitly acknowledge the link between these archipelagoes and Vietnam , or even recognise these archipelagoes as the defence line of Vietnam . For example, Yang Ping Nan’s book “Hai Lu” (1820-1842) wrote “the external route is connected with the inner route by Van Ly Truong Sa which lies in the middle of the sea. The archipelago stretches tens of thousands of “dam” in length. It serves as a shield to defend the outer part of Annam .”
China has many times cited the France-Qing agreement signed in 1887 to confirm that Hoang Sa and Truong Sa belonged to them. However, the agreement did not regulate the demarcation of islands off the coast of Vietnam and China but mandated the boundary between Vietnam ’s northern region and China .
Recently, China has quoted a number of speeches and documents of Vietnam, in particular Prime Minister Pham Van Dong’s diplomatic letter dated September 14, 1958 addressed to the then Premier of China Zhou En Lai and argued that Vietnam had acknowledged China’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa archipelago.
In fact, the late Prime Minister Pham Van Dong’s diplomatic letter did not mention territorial and sovereignty issues relating to Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes. It only acknowledged and approved China ’s expansion of its territorial sea to 12 nautical miles and at the same time instructed Vietnamese agencies to respect the 12-nautical mile limit declared by China . In addition, China knows only too well that the issue of defining borders and territory between the two nations could not be handled via a diplomatic letter, it must go through official negotiations by the two States and an agreement reached on the issue needs to be signed by representatives of the two States.
How did China occupy Hoang Sa and part of Hoang Sa?
Historical and legal evidence has proved Vietnam ’s undeniable sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes. However, in 1956, China used force to occupy a cluster of islands called An Vinh of Hoang Sa archipelago. In 1974, it swallowed the entire archipelago. And they did not stop there; in 1988, China used force to take hold of several reefs in Vietnam ’s Truong Sa archipelago. These are invasive acts that seriously violated the sea and island sovereignty of the State of Vietnam and infringed the United Nations Charter and international law. They were not recognised by the international community.
Vietnam has gone through a lot of wars during which many Vietnamese laid down their lives for national independence, freedom and territorial integrity. In the face of the invading activities of China , her next-door neighbor, Vietnam has been pursuing peaceful measures to request China respect Vietnam ’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in compliance with the spirit of the United Nations Charter as well as the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to which China is a signatory.
Vietnam resolutely and persistently defends the sacred sea and island sovereignty over her Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes and strongly believes that justice will be enforced.