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Vietnamese Claims to the Truong Sa Archipelago
[Ed. Spratly Islands]

Todd C. Kelly

Todd C. Kelly graduated from the M.A. program in Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in August 1999.

There is a tide in the affairs of men[1]

On a string of mere flyspeck islands in the middle of the high seas, the military forces of five nations stand arrayed against one another, each prepared to do battle with the others. The land these potential belligerents seek to control is barely any land at all, but rather a group of tiny rocks, many of which are frequently under water. No humans have ever settled there, and for centuries the only nations that knew of their existence recognized them primarily as a hazard to maritime navigation. How then did this chain of islets, which the nations of Asia and the world considered insignificant for so long, suddenly become so important that battles have been fought over them and countries continue to risk war in order to control the chain? The answers are as difficult to see as are the Truong Sa Islands themselves at high tide.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is one of the six nations[2] that has laid claim to the Truong Sa archipelago. While all the claimant countries have publicly asserted that each should be the legitimate and sole sovereign of all or part of the archipelago, it is Vietnam that has been one of the most adamant in its claims and that has taken assertive steps in attempting to establish its control over the chain. Its willingness to go so far as to risk war with the mighty People's Republic of China (PRC) is evidence enough that the Truong Sa Islands are extremely important to Vietnam. But why? What are the historical, political, legal, economic, and strategic basis of Vietnam's sovereignty claims to the Truong Sa archipelago, and why is control of these islands so important to Hanoi?

This paper presents the arguments Vietnam has put forth to substantiate its claims to the islands. It is not intended to validate those arguments but merely to examine the Vietnamese perspective on this issue. To that end, several primary sources--i.e., Vietnamese government documents--have been used for this study. Since these sources are official position papers or policy statements (White Papers) published by Hanoi, their objectivity may be questioned. Whenever possible, information drawn from these documents will be cross-referenced with non-Vietnamese academic works.

The majority of Vietnamese primary sources not only argue Hanoi's case for sovereignty over the Truong Sa but also attempt to refute the claims of other countries, particularly those of China. This repeated countering of Chinese arguments is clearly a result of Beijing's and Taiwan's actions regarding the archipelago, especially in the latter half of this century; but these rebuttals are also indicative of a larger adversarial issue: the historical relationship between Vietnam and China.

The Context of the Dispute

The pasts of the Vietnamese and Chinese peoples have been intertwined since their histories began. Indeed, the prevalent theory about Vietnamese origins is that the original inhabitants of northern Vietnam were descendants of the Yueh migration from southern China. Despite these common beginnings, independent civilizations developed during the Vietnamese pre-historical period, known as Dong-song.

That independent relationship would eventually change, however, at least for Vietnam (known as Van Lang until after 258 B.C.). Since the first Chinese conquest of the Vietnamese kingdom by Trieu Da in 208 B.C.E., there have been at least four periods when China occupied and ruled the 'land of the southern barbarians,'[3] as well as countless other minor invasions and incursions into Vietnam. This historical relationship produced a rather schizophrenic result: generations of Chinese rule introduced technologies, traditions, and advances--such as a written language--that had long-lasting effects on Vietnamese civilization and served to foster closer ties between the two peoples. Yet an independent and nationalistic spirit survived among the people of Vietnam.

This Vietnamese identity, cognizant of its distinctiveness from the Chinese identity, fueled resentment of outside rule and manifested itself through recurring struggles against the perceived occupation of Vietnam's territories by foreign powers--especially China. When viewed through the context of this historical dynamic, the dispute over the Truong Sa Islands appears as a microcosm of the age-old conflict between these two neighbors. To see how this is so, it is important to examine the islands themselves and their role throughout history.

The Truong Sa Islands

The countries disputing the Truong Sa archipelago can rarely find agreement on any issue relating to the island chain, and this includes what to call the disputed islets. Therefore, a brief discussion of the naming convention to be used in this analysis is in order. Throughout this study, the Vietnamese names for the archipelago and its features will be used except where quotation material preclude such reference. Since Vietnam has yet to publish a complete list of names for all the features of the Truong Sa archipelago,[4] the English names will be used whenever there is no known Vietnamese equivalent.

Located in the East Sea (called the South China Sea outside of Vietnam), the Truong Sa archipelago is best known in the West as the Spratly Islands. The area is also frequently referred to as the "Dangerous Ground" because of its hazards to maritime navigation. To both the PRC and the ROC (Republic of China, Taiwan), the islands are known as the Nansha archipelago.

The islands claimed by the Philippines, which do not include the entire Truong Sa archipelago, are called the Kalaya'an Island Group by Manila.[5] While Malaysia maintains Malay names for the islands and features it occupies, Kuala Lumpur's claims also do not include the entire chain, and thus no attempt has been made to rename the whole archipelago. Similarly, Brunei asserts that it is entitled to sovereignty over only two reefs, not the entire chain.[6]

The Truong Sa archipelago incorporates some five actual islands, three cays, 26 reefs, 21 shoals, and ten banks. Only 25 - 35 of these islets are known to be above water at low tide.[7] The largest island in the chain is Dao Thai Binh (also known as Dao Ba Binh), with a total area of .46 square kilometers and a maximum elevation of about 15 feet[8] Truong Sa Island itself is a mer