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Observers' Seat

Saigon - Hanoi - Paracels Islands Dispute - 1974

Observer: Frank Ching  (Far Eastern Economic Review, Feb. 10, 1994)


Few governments are prepared to admit that they have made a mistake, even when their own policies make it glaringly obvious. Take Vietnam.

Even though the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has abandoned socialism in everything but name, it remains reluctant to acknowledge this. The free-market policies it has been pursuing, however, say otherwise.

During the war years, the battles against American and South Vietnamese troops were fought in the name of socialism and received the support of the entire communist world, Beijing and Moscow in particular. Those battles exacted a heavy toll in national blood and treasure, a price the Vietnamese continue to pay to this day as they belatedly try to put economic development ahead of political ideology.

For that ideology in the past led Hanoi to adopt policies that in retrospect do not appear to have been the wisest. And the ideological contortions involved did more than just lead them into embarrassing accommodations of their principal communist allies, Moscow and Beijing. It also blinded them to the sometimes more principled stands taken by the enemy government in Saigon.


In those days, Hanoi was fond of denouncing South Vietnamese officials as puppets of the United States who had sold out the interests of the Vietnamese people. Even then, it was clear that the charge did not always hold water. Now, 20 years later, it is clear that there were times when the Saigon administration in fact stood up for Vietnamese interests far more staunchly than did the government in Hanoi.

A case in point is the dispute over the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The Paracels, like the Spratlys further North, are claimed by both China and Vietnam. But when Hanoi was receiving aid from Beijing, it muted its claim to the Paracels. The islands were seized by China after a military clash in January 1974, during which Chinese troops bested the South Vietnamese defenders. Since then, the islands have been under Chinese control.

After the Vietnam war ended, there was a rapid falling out between Beijing and Hanoi, and the government of the latter - recently reunified with the South - re-asserted a Vietnamese claim to the Paracels. Despite high-level talks between the two countries, this dispute remains unresolved. Specialists from the two sides are expected to meet soon to discuss specific issues, but no overall settlement is likely. In fact, a senior Vietnamese official acknowledged that the issue would have to be solved by future generations.

Without prejudging the merits of either side's claims, it is obvious that the Vietnamese case was weakened by Hanoi's silence when Chinese troops seized the Paracels. Hanoi's failure to protest in the face of foreign military action is now used against Vietnam whenever the subject is raised.

Vietnamese officials today explain their silence at the time by saying that they were dependent on China for aid in the war against the U.S., which was the principal adversary. So it is certainly ironic that, as soon as the war ended, so did the friendship between Hanoi and Beijing.

Adding to the irony are the new contortions Hanoi must go through in advancing its claims to the Paracels. Because of its past acquiescence, Hanoi is forced to refer not to its own public statements from the 1950s to the 1970s but to Saigon statements – in effect, legitimizing the South Vietnamese government. For as early as 1956 the Saigon government issued a communique reaffirming its ownership of the Paracels and the Spratlys.

Saigon also issued decrees appointing administrators of the Paracels. Up until its defeat by Chinese forces in 1974 (only months before South Vietnam itself fell before the communist onslaught from the North), the Saigon government continued to assert Vietnamese sovereignty over the Paracels.

Over the past few years, Indonesia had sponsored ostensibly non-governmental workshops on the South China Sea. At these periodic workshops the Vietnamese again find themselves embarrassed when asked to explain their silence back when China grabbed what Vietnam now claims was a chunk of its territory. "During this period," they say, "there were the complex political and social situation in Vietnam as well as in the world, of which China took advantage, step by step, occupying by forces the Hoang Sa [Paracel] archipelago. And China encroached upon the whole Hoang Sa archipelago in January 1974."

With the advantage of two decades of history, it should now be possible to assess the acts of the South Vietnamese administration with a more dispassionate eye. In the interests of healing the wounds of war if nothing else, it may be wise for Hanoi to re-examine the record and accord credit where credit may be due. And the Saigon administration's vigorous defense of Vietnam's claims to the Paracels at a time when Hanoi was busy courting China's favor stands out as an act that should be acknowledged.

The late Ho Chi Minh was once asked whether he was pro-Soviet or pro-China. He responded that he was pro-Vietnam. It is now time for Hanoi to acknowledge that there were times when the Saigon administration was more pro-Vietnam than the government in the North.

Background on the claims of the said islands:

What happened after Ho has Mao's army and cadres taken the power in NVN.

1. Selling the Paracel and Spratly islands :

Vietnam claimed sovereignty over the "Hoang Sa and Truong Sa Archipelagoes" basing on old documents and especially, Ly Qui Don's "Phu Bien Tap Luc". Vietnam called them Hoa`ng Sa (Paracels) and Tru+o+`ng Sa (Spratleys); China called them Ta^y Sa (the Xisha) and Nam Sa (Nansha) islands. Vietnamese clashed with the People's Republic of China on 19/1/1974 whereby a former South Vietnam Navy's big boat was sunk and 40 Viet men were captured. In 3/1988, PRC came and sunk 3 Viet boats; 72 men were killed and 9 captured. On 25/2/1992, PRC declared Truong Sa or Spratly Islands were theirs.

The main reason for China to do this was known before as part of the plan called "Survival Space" (Kho^ng gian sinh to^`n) because resources of the two areas, Manchuria and Tian Shan (Tan Cuong), would