Zhao Qinghai: Vietnam has no claim to sovereignty over China's Xisha Islands
2014-06-11 19:05

On June 11, 2014, Australia's most influential business and finance newspaper, The Australian Financial Review published an article titled "Vietnam has no claim to sovereignty over China's Xisha Islands" by Zhao Qinghai, director of the Centre for Maritime Security and Cooperation Studies at the China Institute of International Studies. The full text is as follows:

The dispute between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea has recently escalated, prompting questions such as whether or not a Chinese oil-drilling rig is within Vietnamese waters, whether the sovereignty of Xisha Islands is disputed, and where Vietnam's anti-China violence is heading.

Vietnam claims that China's oil-drilling operation lies within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf. The fact is the drilling rig is located in the contiguous zone of China's Xisha Islands.

The Chinese operation is completely in line with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It is Vietnam that has breached international law. Sam Bateman, a former Australian naval commodore, points out that "there are many examples around the world of countries having sovereignty over features well inside the EEZ of another, or of EEZ boundaries being established significantly closer to one country than to another".

The UNCLOS provides that the delimitation of the EEZ and continental shelf between states with opposite or adjacent coasts shall be effected by agreement between the states concerned and that an island that can sustain human habitation is able to claim an EEZ. The Chinese drilling operation is only 17 nautical miles from China's Zhongjian Island while 150 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast. Even Vietnamese scholars such as Tran Truong Thuy, Director of the Centre for South China Sea Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam admits that according to the principle of "equidistance midline", the Xisha Islands are entitled to EEZ and the Chinese oil-drilling operation is well within that EEZ.

Since the operation is within China's contiguous zone (a contiguous zone lies within EEZ), Vietnam's disruptive activities constitute dangerous provocations, particularly in light of the fact that Vietnam has sent out frogmen, deployed a huge amount of fishing nets and large obstacles in the related waters.

Vietnam's behaviour is not only an impediment to normal commercial activities in that area, but also a threat to the safety of Chinese ships, facilities and personnel as well as safety of navigation on the sea.

Though well aware that the oil-drilling operation is within China's EEZ, Vietnam has been deliberately and intentionally creating smoke screens that the sovereignty of Xisha Islands is in dispute by staging large-scale protests and demonstrations. However, smoke screens cannot cover the truth. As Sam Bateman says: "Despite much global commentary suggesting that Vietnam has a case to support its sovereignty claim, closer analysis of the history of the dispute suggests otherwise."

China first discovered the Xisha Islands 2000 years ago and began development of the archipelago at least 1000 years ago. Since the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1279), successive Chinese dynasties have sent the navy to inspect Xisha Islands. Such form of jurisdiction carried well into the 1920s.

After the French takeover of Vietnam, France tried to occupy Xisha and Nansha Islands but failed. In 1929, the then French Governor-General to Indochina admitted that "according to reports from various sources, the Paracel Islands (Western name for Xisha Islands) should be considered as belonging to China". In the 1930s, taking advantage of Japan's invasion of China's north-east, France began to lay territorial claims on the Xisha Islands, which met with strong condemnation by the Chinese government.

During WWII, Japan seized the Xisha Islands. After Japan's surrender, the Chinese government sent warships to Xisha and Nansha Islands. A take-over ceremony was held on one of the Islands and a monument was erected for commemoration.

On September 4, 1958, the Chinese government issued a declaration defining its territorial waters which encompassed Xisha Islands. In March 1959, China set up the "Office for Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha Islands" on the Yongxing Island, one of the Xisha Islands.

Before the year 1974, the North Vietnamese government had all along acknowledged China's sovereignty over the Xisha Islands. In September 1958, Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN) Pham Van Dong sent a diplomatic note to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, stating that: "The government of the DRVN recognises and supports the declaration dated 4 September 1958 of the Government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) fixing the width of the Chinese territorial waters. The Government of the DRVN respects this decision and will give instructions to its State bodies to respect the 12-mile width of the territorial waters of China in all their relations in the maritime field with the PRC."

Years later, in May 1965, the DRVN government in a statement responding to the US government's definition of "theatre of war" in Vietnam, once again acknowledged the Xisha Islands as Chinese territory. After the DRVN reunited Vietnam in 1976, the statements it had made should still count. The doctrine of estoppel in international law simply does not allow Vietnam to renege on its words regarding the sovereignty of the Xisha Islands.

Subsequent to the China-Vietnam standoff over the oil-drilling rig operation, large-scale anti-China violence broke out in Vietnam. Many foreign companies in the country were smashed and looted, inflicting hundreds of casualties. Such xenophobia will not only scare off foreign investment, but will ultimately hurt Vietnam's own economy.

Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Commonwealth of Australia
Address: 15 Coronation Drive, Yarralumla, ACT 2600
Tel: 0061-2-62283999, Fax: 0061-2-62283836
E-mail: chinaemb_au@mfa.gov.cn
Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Commonwealth of Australia All Rights Reserved