Vietnam’s Diaspora Challenges China’s Claim to Archipelagos
By Thi Lam
On May 11, 2009, nine days before he died in San Jose, Calif., the last prime minister of South Vietnam, Nguyen Ba Can, fought to save his homeland from China’s expansion. On behalf of the Vietnamese diaspora, he submitted to the United Nations a dossier establishing the outer edges of Vietnam’s continental shelf in compliance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Can’s dossier, prepared with the help of experts on international laws from the Vietnamese communities overseas, cites geographical and historical evidence to establish Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracels and Spratlys archipelagos.
While the Vietnamese diaspora is struggling to claim ownership of these two island groups, the Hanoi regime, which came to power using anti-imperialism rhetorics, is giving away its territory. Those islands would give China a claim to much of the territorial waters in the Easter Sea, and therefore fishing rights and access to minerals and potential oil reserves.
History has a curious way of repeating itself. In ancient times, Vietnamese kings periodically sent ambassadors with precious stones, gold and ivory to the Peking Imperial Court to pay tributes to their powerful masters in exchange for their protection. Today precious stones, gold and ivory have been replaced by precious territorial concessions, and the old kings by new communist rulers.
Can’s dossier established the legitimacy of the former Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam); it stresses that the acts of aggression by North Vietnam and its occupation of the territory of the RVN after 1975 “have not abrogated the three international treaties: the Geneva Accords of 1954, the Paris Accords of 1973, as well the Final Act of March 2, 1973.”
Can also refutes Hanoi’s concomitant submission to the UN, in which the Vietnamese communist government recognizes China’s de facto sovereignty over the Paracel Archipelagos, and reports only a pending dispute with Malaysia over islands in the Spratlys, south of the Paracel Islands.
China captured the Paracel Islands after a bloody naval battle on January 19, 1974, with the South Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. The Spratlys, rich in petroleum resources, is claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and China. But China is the only country that has used military forces to invade the Spratlys and occupy five islands of this archipelago on March 14, 1988.
The Paracels island closest to Vietnam is 135 nautical miles away whereas the distance of the northernmost island to China’s shore is 235 nautical miles. Spratly Island, meanwhile, is 250 nautical miles from the Vietnamese port shore, compared to 310 nautical miles that separate the same island from China’s Hainan island. Based on these data, Can argued that, “both groups of Paracels and Spratlys islands...must belong to Vietnam.”
The dossier presents historical documents to support the territorial sovereignty of Vietnam over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos. The oldest is the Hong Duc map drawn in the late 1400’s. The most important, however, is the Treaty of Tientsin signed by China and France in 1885, which recognized the French Protectorate over Vietnam, whose territory at that time already included the above archipelagos. [Moreover, after World War II ended, the victors who signed international treaties that settled territorial litigations affecting the nations previously conquered by Germany and Japan did not change the sovereignty of the Paracels and Spratlys.]
The UN is not expected to rule on Continental Shelf related issues anytime soon, but former Prime Minister Can’s last political gesture has added a new dimension to the struggle against China’s expansionism. It signals the emergence of an increasingly active diaspora that is determined to wage a two-front war: to oppose foreign aggression and to fight for democratic reform in Vietnam.
Thi Lam was a lieutenant general in the South Vietnamese army and the author of The Twenty-Five Year Century: A South Vietnamese General Remembers the Indochina War to the Fall of Saigon. He wrote this for New America Media.