On shaky ground in disputed waters

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2012, 4:53pm

When China announced last week the creation of Sansha on an island in the Paracels archipelago it highlighted a key sensitivity - and potential vulnerability - for the sole rival claimant, Vietnam.

The establishment of the city, which will administer some of the territory Beijing claims in the South China Sea, also throws the spotlight on a historical contradiction in the United States' position on the regional territorial dispute, just one of several wrinkles in the decades-long saga over the Paracels.

Hanoi has been struggling amid mounting domestic pressure to push Beijing into talks over the Paracels as part of broader bilateral discussions to settle outstanding territorial disputes. The Sino-Vietnamese land border has been agreed and that in the Gulf of Tonkin settled, but Beijing has rejected overtures to include the Paracels - some of which it took by force from the South Vietnamese navy in 1974 - as part of future talks on maritime disputes.

From Beijing's perspective, as sole occupier, there is no dispute. Certainly China's state media largely ignores the Vietnamese claim, or the fact that China's occupation was completed by force.

And the creation and garrisoning of Sansha city on Woody Island - known as Yongxing Island in Chinese - suggests that is not about to change any time soon. Woody Island is already home to a military airfield and a strategic listening post.

A recent statement from the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry that confirmed Sino-Vietnamese talks to demarcate the so-called Mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin also confirmed that Hanoi is still pushing Beijing over the resource-rich Paracels, known as the Xisha Islands in Chinese and Hoang Sa Islands in Vietnamese.

'At [all] talks on sea issues so far... Vietnam has reiterated its sovereignty over the Hoang Sa archipelago,' Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said. 'In the spirit that solution of easier issues will take priority over that of more difficult issues ... the two sides will focus on discussing the waters off the bay mouth of (Tonkin).'

The US State Department, meanwhile, has expressed worries over Sansha's creation, with spokeswoman Victoria Nuland saying that the US 'remained concerned should there be any unilateral moves of this kind that would seem to prejudge an issue that we have said repeatedly can only be solved negotiations, by dialogue and by a collaborative diplomatic process among all the claimants'.

US officials also repeatedly and routinely stress that Washington takes no positions on the competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, beyond its interests in free navigation and regional stability.

When it comes to the Paracels, however, Washington's position has not always been so clear. The memoirs of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger reveal a telling episode in April 1972 - shortly before the US withdrawal from what was then South Vietnam and just two months after then-president Richard Nixon's historic first trip to China, a mission pioneered by Kissinger.

Answering a protest from Beijing over incursions of US naval vessels into territorial waters around the Paracels, Kissinger secretly dispatched his aide Winston Lord to New York to tell China's ambassador to the UN, Huang Hua, that 'without prejudice to our legal position on territorial waters our navy would be instructed to stay at a distance of 12 miles from the islands'.

In less than two years, China's occupation would be complete.

To understand the Paracels dispute, and particularly the historic suspicions and sensitivities that may cloud any future solution, the events of January 1974 are a good place to start. It could be said that no major actor or bit player would come out particularly well from these.

The bitter 11-year Vietnam war that pitted the US-backed regime in Saigon against communist Hanoi, supported by China and the Soviet Union, was by then near its end. Until then, the largely uninhabited reefs, sea-mounts and islets that make up the Paracels had not been a significant factor in the conflict.

Chinese fishermen had long occupied the chain's northeastern reefs. To the southeast, South Vietnam kept a garrison surrounding a weather station on Pattle Island, replacing French colonial forces which occupied the area over Chinese protests. A reduction in that presence to a single platoon, amid the disarray that followed the US withdrawal from the south a year earlier, had apparently not been lost on Beijing.

In January, a handful of South Vietnamese troops and an American adviser - all later captured - reported the appearance of armed Chinese vessels, People's Liberation Army troops and flags on the nearby Duncan and Drummond islands.

Habitually chaotic Saigon military chiefs demanded action. Four South Vietnamese warships steamed north to confront four Chinese ships. The presence of the PLA naval vessels was no accident, however.

The operation was plotted and monitored by a five-man Politburo team headed by Premier Zhou Enlai that also included Deng Xiaoping, according to a seminal diplomatic history of China during the Vietnam wars by US-based scholar Qiang Zhai.

Within a few days, the entire Paracels would be in Chinese hands, although Saigon preferred to trumpet its claim to have sunk two Chinese ships for the loss of one.

Interestingly, they did this without the usual US help. Requests for naval assistance from the US Seventh Fleet were apparently ignored.

A South Vietnamese naval officer would later write of the battle's 'astonishing public popularity' among the nervous and weary Saigon public.

'The TV, radio and newspapers were going crazy. Home banners were flapping in the streets of Saigon and Da Nang,' Kiem Do wrote, noting that their northern communist enemies were momentarily forgotten. 'Even the communists were keeping their mouths shut, loath to remind people that they were allied with the ancient enemy.

'President [Nguyen Van] Thieu ordered a champagne reception for the returning heroes in Saigon.'

The hangover, however, was swift. Soon South Vietnam was protesting to the UN over the loss of its territory by force. By the end of April, 1975 South Vietnam would cease to exist after the fall of Saigon to northern forces.

In Hanoi, the loss of territory was also painfully felt, but the official response was relatively mute - a reflection of wartime realities despite China stealing the march on its allies just before their moment of triumph.

A statement calling for disputes to be settled through negotiation was issued through the then-Provisional Revolutionary Government, Hanoi's official proxy in the South.

It was not the first time those wartime realities had surfaced. Eighteen years earlier, North Vietnam acknowledged a territorial claim from China that covered the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos.

North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong's letter of acknowledgement to Zhou did not specify either island group, but said Hanoi 'respects this decision'.

But once the reunified Socialist Republic of Vietnam was created in July 1976, Hanoi was swift to assert sovereignty over both archipelagos - and was also claiming and occupying islands in the Spratlys, or Nansha Islands, further south, occupations that still rankle Beijing today.

A year later, according to the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review of Hong Kong, Pham Van Dong was already explaining his earlier positions. 'That was the war and I had to say that,' Dong said. About the same time, Vietnam's ambassador in Paris described China's invasion of the Paracels as Beijing's 'first act of armed aggression against Vietnam'.

Far from being dusty history, these positions have been given a fresh airing in recent months as scholars and regional analysts start to revisit the Paracels issue amid renewed international focus on the South China Sea.

In a survey last year for the government-linked Australian Strategic Policy Institute, for example, Singapore-based maritime scholar Dr Sam Bateman writes that 'Vietnam's claim is weakened' by consistent recognition of Chinese sovereignty between the 1950s and 1970s.

Scholars sometimes cite an earlier work by Australian academic Greg Austin, who gives China a stronger claim than Vietnam, in part because of the events of the 1950s.

While Bateman also said that Vietnam risked a 'hiding to nothing' over its pursuit of the Paracels, he nonetheless noted Hanoi's claim to traditional fishing grounds might have some strength. China has arrested hundreds of Vietnamese fishermen throughout the Paracels in recent years - a major source of Sino-Vietnamese friction - but Hanoi has yet to stop them sailing in large fleets from Vietnam.

Vietnamese officials, meanwhile, are saying nothing publicly about whether China is still holding them to the earlier 1950s statements. Instead, they describe a steady arc of sovereignty dating back centuries, through the French colonial period.

They also echo the views of some scholars and legal experts who believe China's use of force back in 1974 would be held against it in any international court settlement under the UN's Law of the Sea.

Not that they realistically expect Beijing to suddenly agree to settling the dispute via an international ruling - an unprecedented act between two communist-ruled states.

'They occupy the islands now so it could be said that they would have only something to lose by agreeing to an [international] court case,' one senior Hanoi official said. 'But they must not think that that illegal occupation will stop us asserting our sovereignty ... quite the reverse, we must continue to seize every moment to claim what is ours.'


Bodies of land in the Paracel chain, located off central Vietnam. Occupied by Beijing since 1974, Hanoi and Taipei also have claims