André Menras : ‘Battering ram’ and ‘spill-over’ - a chronology of the Chinese annexation of the Paracels

Conférence internationale de Đà Nẵng

“Hoàng Sa Trường Sa: sự thật lịch sử”

19-20 et 21 juin 2014


‘Battering ram’ and ‘spill-over’

a chronology of the Chinese annexation of the Paracels, a strategic base for control of the South-East Asia Sea

by André Menras

André Menras Ho Cuong Quyet
© 2011 AFP Hoang Dinh Nam



We cannot understand the current situation if we restrict ourselves to a few recent events without taking the risk of viewing current confrontations as an expression of territorial ‘disputes’ where there would be little to choose between the parties in the confusion of responsibility and legitimacy. Pontius Pilate-like neutrality of this kind would exclude any possibility of a fair settlement without which there could be no actual or enduring peace. A chronological study of the key historical moments is absolutely essential, if not sufficient, to identify the sources of the conflict and their current expression in order to weigh them up more effectively to reach a settlement.

Throughout this talk I will not be using the term ‘the South China Sea’, because this term invented by colonial cartographers, from the 1960s onwards, and used in the majority of atlases, has, whether innocently or not, negative connotations in terms of sovereignty. Indeed, as demonstrated by going from ‘South China Sea’ to ‘South Chinese Sea’, a simple change in wording dispossesses bordering countries of this vital maritime area in favour of the Empire. This Mediterranean of South East Asia is not historically or legally, or in ancestral traditions, an exclusively Chinese lake. It is the common property of the countries which border it and the international community which increasingly uses it.

The pre-colonial period

Towards undisputed sovereignty

  • 1702 → The first Hoàng Sà brigade: 70 men from An Vĩnh.(Nguyễn Lords)
  • 1816→ The Emperor  Gia Long : Declaration of the Sovereign Rights of the An nam Empire over Hoàng Sa ( Cát Vàng)
  • 1833 to 1836→ Minh Mang orders: construction of a temple and sovereignty memorial stone, mapping, and the planting of trees
  • 1867→ Thủ Đức awards the title of ‘Hero’ to the sailors sent to Hoàng Sa and who perished during their voyage.

These coherent State acts by the Kingdom of An Nam fully justify the right to sovereignty. 

First colonial period up to the start of the 20th century:

China’s acts which acknowledge Vietnamese sovereignty over  the Paracels

  • 1884: The Treaty of Huế (article 15): “France undertakes to guarantee henceforth the integrity of the realms of His Majesty the King of An Nam”. The Paracel archipelago is one of these realms.
  • 1884: Chinese map of the ‘unified empire’ whose southern border extends only as far as Hai Nan. It does not therefore include the Paracels.
  • 1885: The Franco-Chinese Treaty of Tientsin:  China withdraws any claim to sovereignty over Vietnam and therefore the Paracels.
  • 1906: According to the ” Zhong guó Dìhixué jiao ke shu “, the official school geography textbook, the southernmost point in the country is 18° 13′ latitude north i.e. the south of Hai Nan Island.  The Paracels are therefore not part of the Empire.

First colonial period up to 1945

The beginning of Chinese ambitions:

  • 1909: 24-hour landing of Admiral Li Zhun on Phú Lâm (Pattle) Island under the orders of the Governor of Guangdong and Guangxi.
  • 1921: The Provincial Governor of Canton announces that he wishes to annex the archipelago and annex it to Hainan.
  • 1925: The General Governor of Indochina reaffirms that the archipelagos are An nam lands under French protectorate.
  • 1925-1936: Series of articles by Henri Cucherousset in ‘L’éveil économique de l’Indochine’ (The Economic Awakening of Indochina)
  • 1931-1932: China allows private individuals to collect guano on the archipelago. France objects.
  • 1937- 1939: Detachment of colonial guards on Pattle to build a lighthouse, a weather station, a radio station, and erect a memorial:” The French Republic – Kingdom of Annam – Archipelago of the Paracel Islands -1816- Pattle Island 1938″.

Second colonial period up to 1954

Chinese ambitions become burgeoning claims to sovereignty.

  • 1945: Potsdam Conference – Nationalist China is given the mission of disarming Japan north of the 16th parallel.
  • 1947: Chiang Kaï Chek’s troops land on the eastern Paracel islands. France sends a military detachment which establishes a garrison on Pattle. France suggests international arbitration, which China refuses.
  • 1947: appearance of the first U-shape line with 11 dashes of the S-E Asia Sea.  
  • 1950: China evacuates its garrison on Woody Island. Control of the archipelagos is officially handed over to Bảo Đại.
  • 1951: San Francisco conference. The Paracels and Spratleys are not attributed to any country. The Soviet Union suggests Mao’s China: rejected with a crushing majority. Bảo Đại’s Foreign Minister reaffirms Vietnamese sovereignty. France is silent on the matter.
  • 1954: The Geneva Accords: all the islands are now administered by the SRV (south of the 17th parallel). No Chinese protests during the negotiations.

After Geneva up to the departure of the USA…

The violence of the “fait accompli”.

  • 1956: French retreat and relief by SRV troops on Pattle and the Crescent Group. PRC troops land discretely on the eastern side ( the Amphitrite Group ). This time they will stay.
  • 1958: Diplomatic memo from Phạm Văn Đồng  who ‘notes and approves’ a PRC declaration which sets the boundaries of China’s territorial waters at 12 nautical miles. Peking uses this to support its claims to sovereignty over the archipelagos.
  • 1974: The Chinese navy takes the entire archipelago by force. 64 Vietnamese die. The nearby US Seventh Fleet, do not come to the rescue when asked. The Republic of Vietnam’s observer at the U.N asks for the situation to be considered by the Security Council. Without success. No support is forthcoming from the USA or France.

After 1974 until 2009

China secures  the Hoàng Sa base. Legitimisation. New shows of strength.

  • 10 December 1982: Montego Bay Convention on the Law of the Sea signed and ratified by China and Vietnam will come into force in 1994: “art. 89: no state may validly purport to subject any part of the high seas to its sovereignty’.
  • March 1988: violent battle on Gac Ma (Johnson South Reef). 74 vietnamese killed.
  • 1992: Peking grants the US company Crestone Energy a concession for petrol exploration in Vietnam’s EEZ.
  • 1989 to 1995 occupation of additional reefs and small islands including that of Panganaban reef.( Mischief reef) (The Philippines’ EEZ).
  • 2002: Declaration Of Conduct (D.O.C), “gentlemen’s agreement”. Between China and the ASEAN states. Start of a Chinese campaign of threats and bullying to dissuade foreign companies from cooperating with Vietnam and the  Philippines in these countries’ EEZs…
  • 2007: Chinese law establishes the town of “Tam Sa” attached to Hainan and based in Phú Lâm (Paracels).

From 2009 onwards: consolidation, legitimization, the escalating crisis accelerates, new shows of strength


  • March: the USNS “Impeccable”: path blocked by Chinese naval vessels
  • April: Quingdao: demonstration of the military power of the navy
  • May: – diplomatic memo to the Secretary General of the UN, in reaction to the submission on Vietnam’s sovereignty and the joint submission by this country and Malyasia, which deemed these submissions as ‘illegal and invalid’. China reaffirms its sovereignty based on its famous ‘9-dotted line’, without any historic or legal basis, covering 80% of the maritime zone and all the archipelagos.
  • From 16 May to 1 August: unilateral ban on fishing in the zone claimed by Peking; – setting up of a special department attached to Foreign Affairs to ‘manage questions related to maritime sovereignty’.
  • October: ASEAN summit : Refusal to consider differences over the SE Asia Sea in multi-party talks.
  • December:  ‘To Develop tourism on a large scale’ in the U-shaped zone, the Chinese National Assembly adopts the law to protect and develop the islands.


  • May:  aggression against the ‘Bình minh 02′, a seismic exploration vessel belonging to the Pétrovietnam company,  from Chinese vessels in Vietnam’s EEZ. Goal: to make the EEZ a disputed zone…
  • September: aggression against the ‘Viking II’ from the same company in Vietnam’s EEZ.


  • April: ASEAN summit – China pressures Cambodia, then President, to prevent a joint communiqué concerning a declaration of conduct with legal force (DOC) in the SE Asia Sea.
  • April-May:  Scarborough shoal (Spratleys) : 3-week confrontation with the Philippines within Manila’s EEZ.
  • July: China elects the ‘President of Tam Sa’. Installation of a 3G satellite communications centre on Phú Lâm.
  • August: 23,000 Chinese fishing boats leave Quang Dong and Hainan to fish in the SE Asia Sea – PLA division-sized military unit established in Phú Lâm for the ‘defence zone of “Tam Sa” as an ‘instrument for governing the sea’.


  • June: publication of the book: ‘The city of Tam Sa, China: its history, resources, and role in national defence’.
  • November: ‘Air Defence Identification Zone’ (ADIZ) decreed by China above the East China Sea. Japan and the 10 countries in ASEAN declare that they agree to “cooperate more in order to ensure the freedom of flight and the security of civil aviation…”


  • January: Decree from the Hainan province requiring authorisation from any ‘foreign’ fishing boat active in the ‘U-shaped line’ under penalty of large fines and sanctions which could result in their boat being confiscated and having to appear before a Chinese court.
  • May:  Installation of a huge  oil platform (HD981)  inside Vietnam’s EEZ, 119 nautical miles from the Lý Sơn baseline. The goal – to turn Vietnam’s EEZ into a disputed zone.

The key elements of Peking’s expansionist strategy

  • 1°)  In the expansionist process, ‘going out’ towards the south, Peking began with the closest point: the Paracels archipelago.
  • 2°) From this secure base, Peking begins to take steps towards establishing new bases inside the EEZ of bordering nations which China wants to turn into ‘disputed zones’ with a ‘battering ram’.
  • 3°) China has always taken advantage of the ‘emptiness’ following the departure of other powers (1956, 1974, 1988 and currently) by following a strategy  of threats, military violence and fait accompli.
  • 4°) China has only ever signed international or regional agreements so that it can then violate them. However, China is a signatory of the Charter of the United Nations ‘art. 2.4: ‘All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state…’
  • 5°) A diplomatic strategy of division, refusal to participate in multi-party negotiations, refusal of international arbitration. A strategy supported by a policy of economic incentives and reprisals.

The international community’s responsibilities and debt

  • The French colonial state in a certain way helped An nam to free itself of Chinese influence and retain a large part of its territorial integrity. From another angle, it sometimes forgot and even betrayed the ‘protected’ country for its own short-term interests. The hesitation and wavering fuelled China’s ambitions:
  • “The Paracels could constitute a bargaining chip or be used as compensation as concessions from us on other issues” (Letter dated 20 March 1930 from P. Pasquier Governor General of Indochina to the Minister of Colonies.)
  • Silence from France at the San Francisco Conference in 1951 and after the Chinese invasion of the Paracels in 1974.
  • The Nixon-Kissinger US administration: inaction when the Chinese attacked in 1974. Silence from the nearby 7th fleet.
  • “The USA’s position is not to support Vietnam’s claims to sovereignty over the islands.”  Henry Kissinger. (Foreign relations of the United states 1969-1976; Volume XVIII, China 197361976; Document 66).
  • Neutrality is a fight for the law and justice. This was the lesson of Munich.

The fishermen of Central Vietnam – victims of Chinese aggression

  • A very limited chronology of aggressions (between 2002 and 2013)
  • Around 2000 fishermen victims around and off the coast of the Hoàng Sa archipelago.
  • Approximate total Attacks: several hundred.
  • Fishermen who have been killed or who have ‘disappeared’: 30
  • Fishermen who have been rammed and just saved: 120.
  • Sunk or confiscated fishing boats: approx. 30.
  • Fishermen kidnapped for a ransom in Phú Lâm (for between a few days and a month and a half): approx. 500.
  • Ransoms: around $5000 – 8000 per fishing boat: Amount unknown.
  • Fishing gear systematically destroyed or confiscated: Amount unknown.
  • Fish catches systematically confiscated: Amount unknown.

Don’t Human Rights apply at sea?

Terrorism and human tragedy.

  • Mrs Nguyễn Thị Hào (Bình Châu village, Quảng Ngãi).
  • “I lost my husband and my son when they were fishing in Hoàng Sa in 2008. They disappeared near Bombay  island along with 7 of their fellows. Nine people in all.”
  • Mrs Trương Thị Nhi ( Bình Châu ):“They shot him and killed him.”
  • Mr Nguyễn Thành Đồng ( Bình Châu):“In this region, when a woman loses her husband, the family loses everything”
  • Mr Tiêu Viết Là ( Bình Châu ):“Three of them hit me. I’ve been hurt since and can’t go out to sea. My fishing boat has been confiscated and I have to pay a ransom. I’ve lost everything”.
  • Mr Nguyễn Đặc ( Lý Sơn):“Having just what you need to eat or enjoy prosperity depends on Hoàng Sa”.


Conclusion: Compensation?

In April 2014 the Maritime Affairs Tribunal in Shanghai ordered the confiscation of a Japanese shipment to compensate for a war debt dating back to 1936: thirty million dollars for two confiscated boats. The Japanese paid.

How many tens of billions of dollars does China owe Vietnam for forcibly borrowing the Paracels for 40 years, for the lack of economic gains that this represents, for the families of Vietnamese soldiers killed during the annexation of the archipelago, for the thousands of mistreated fishermen who were banned from fishing for decades, for the dozens of fishermen killed, for the dozens of fishing boats sunk and confiscated, and for the hundreds of ransoms paid out? If the damages of this monumental hold-up and its consequences were only measured in terms of money, then the compensation would at least boost Vietnam’s economy for years and get thousands of families, who are still victims of these crimes, out of poverty.

For the Chinese leaders, the only way to get out of this tragedy positively is the opposite of the approach they have chosen to impose: all acts of aggression and incursion need to stop immediately in the maritime and island zone under Vietnamese sovereignty and measures taken to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar i.e. return Hoàng Sa to Vietnam. Any other approach can only be short-lived and lead China into a painful impasse and peace with it.

Some resources on the fishermen

Video: “Hoàng Sa Vietnam : painfull loss, la meurtrissure” (posted on YouTube)

Citer ce billet
indomemoires (2014, 10 juin). André Menras : ‘Battering ram’ and ‘spill-over’ - a chronology of the Chinese annexation of the Paracels. Mémoires d'Indochine. Consulté le 12 avril 2024, à l’adresse

2 réflexions sur « André Menras : ‘Battering ram’ and ‘spill-over’ - a chronology of the Chinese annexation of the Paracels »

  1. Bravo à André Menras ! Nous vous souhaitons beaucoup de succès ! Et merci pour votre courage et votre volonté !

  2. D’après Phạm Văn Dỹ, il y avait aussi une tentavive d’invasion chinoise en 1959 :

    “…Lần thứ ba là năm 1959 họ ra đòn nhưng không thành công. Trung Quốc mang quân qua chiếm nốt phần phía tây của quần đảo Hoàng Sa nhưng quân đội Việt Nam cộng hòa đã có mặt ở đó…” (Tuoi Tre, 09/06/2014).

Les commentaires sont fermés.