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The French Annexation, and British Abandonment of Spratlies.

Abandonment of Territorial Claims: The cases of Bouvet and Spratly Islands


The United Kingdom has been a party to many territorial dispute including spratley islands sovereignty. After the French announced the annexation of spratley Islands to Baria Province (Vietnam), they faced immediately the protest of the British Government. On 23 April 1930 the Foreign Office received the following telegram from the British Consul-General in Saigon, French Indo-China: "French announce annexation of Spratly or Storm Island which appears to be the identical island annexed by Great Britain in 1877. Local authorities state that they acted on orders from the French Foreign Office. Attention of local authorities has been drawn to apparent mistake verbally. Please send instructions as to further steps, if any, at Saigon." After 10 years long negotiation, with discussing and exchange of complex legal papers, French didn't get any change in the British decision about their Spatlys sovereignty.

(e) Post-war Developments. The Second World War delayed any further detailed discussions of sovereignty over Spratly and neighbouring islands. The British claim had not abandoned. Then on 14 October 1917 a document, prepared by the Foreign Office in agreement with the Commonwealth Relation Office and the Colonial Office, was circulated to members of the Cabinet (Far Eastern (Official)) Committee to serve as a brief for the UK delegation to the Peace Conference with Japan, and was later approved as such. It read as follows:... On July 1933, the French Government notified HM Government of the assumption of French sovereignty over Spratley Island and certain other islands in the South China Sea, including Amboyna Cay. HMG did not accord recognition to this claim. In 1937 and 1938 the Japanese occupied certain islands in the group, and on 31 March, 1939, the Japanese Foreign Office issued a notice stating that the Spratley islands had long been ownerless, that Japanese nationals had established themselves there since 1917 and that the Japanese Government had decided to place them under the jurisdiction of the Governor General of Formosa. HMC informed the Japanese Government that they were unable to admit that the Japanese claim had any foundation in law.

It is desirable to ensure that there should be a Provision in the Peace Treaty whereby Japan renounces any claims or rights to the islands of Spratley and Amboyna Cay. It would probably not be necessary to refer to those Islands by name: but care should be taken to ensure that they are covered by the wording of whatever clause or clauses provide for the renunciation by Japan of rights and claims to territory outside 'the four islands and adjacent islands'.

HMG have a claim to Spratley which has never been formally abandoned, but they are not prepared to contest the French claim to sovereignty which is considered to be good in law. If, therefore, any question arises of referring explicitly to Spratley and Amboyna Cay in the Peace Treaty it should, if possible, be left to France to take the initiative of putting forward detailed proposals."

In 1950, Australia informally asked whether the UK might be prepared to seek trusteeship for Spratly and neighbouring islands. In the course of its reply, dated 24 October 1950, the Foreign Office stated : "In our view the dominant consideration in the disposal of these Islands is their strategic Importance. From that point of view we should not object to the ownership of the Islands by France, but we should not wish their ownership to go to Japan, the Philippines, Nationalist China or, particularly, the Central People's Government of China.

The letter ended: We do not, therefore, see any benefit in pursuing this matter at present, and propose to let it rest for the time being.

In another instance the Commissioner General for the UK in South East Asia advised the Foreign Office on 5 June 1956 that the Naval Commander-in-Chief, Far East Station, who had been requested by the Shell Company of Borneo to transport a geologist to Spratly Island, had asked whether the ship's commander should take this opportunity to run up a flag and take formal occupation. The Commissioner General asked for Foreign Office guidance in view of his information about earlier events relating to the British claim. In reply, the Foreign Office, in a telegram dated 12 June 1956, pointed out that there was now a territorial dispute involving the two Chinas, the Philippines and possibly Vietnam over the Nansha islands, the British vessel should stay well clear of Spratly islands.

The message went on: Our claim to Spratley Island has never been abandoned but has also never been pressed, as it is considered too week, in view of the lack of effective exercise of sovereignty, ever to be likely to win acceptance before the International Court. This remains the position.

(Abandonment of Territorial Claims: The cases of Bouvet and Spratly Islands, by Geoffrey Marston, in The British Yearbook of International Law 1986, LVII, p. 337-356).