Looking back at the Paracels as a source of the South China Sea dispute

The dispute reaches back to the 19th century and was close to provoking war in 1947 between France and China

 

To the east of Central Vietnam and south of Chinese Hainan, a group of tiny islands is causing discord in the South China Sea. The key to understanding the conflict goes back far further than contemporary headlines.


Vietnam is one of the countries that has long claimed sovereignty to the Paracels, yet they are under Chinese control. The reason can be found in a dramatic French-Chinese standoff in 1947 and a narrowly avoided war.


Disputed ground


The Vietnamese Nguyen dynasty first claimed the Paracels in 1816. Yet France, after colonising Vietnam, did not show much interest in them and China developed a rival claim in 1909. Fearing Japanese expansionism, France reasserted the Annamese (Vietnamese) claim in 1931.


When France dispatched a Franco-Vietnamese force to occupy the islands in 1938 and build a lighthouse, they found that Japan was there before them. During World War II, the Paracels were occupied by Japanese-Taiwanese and French-Vietnamese forces living side by side. Following the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the islands were abandoned and left to fishermen who stayed there on a seasonal basis.


A reconnaissance plane in November 1946 confirmed what a French ship had spotted in May: the islands were now unoccupied.

The 1947 standoff


In October 1946, the French government instructed its high commissioner in Saigon to establish a presence in the largest of the Paracels, Woody Island, and erect a meteorological station. High commissioner Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu was, however, busy preparing for war against the Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam.


The First Indochina War broke out in Hanoi on 19 December 1946. While the French and Viet Minh were fighting from house to house in densely populated Hanoi, the high commissioner decided to send a naval ship to the unoccupied Paracels in response to the French government’s instruction.


However, this time China got there first. A French reconnaissance plane observed a group of men on Woody Island, waving Chinese flags on 10 January. When the French naval ship, Le Tonkinois, arrived seven days later the vessel was met by a Chinese detachment with three officers and 60 men.


The French notified the Chinese that the Paracels were Vietnamese territory, under French protection, and demanded they promptly leave. They refused. Threats and bribes were proffered to no effect.


Alarm bells rang in Paris and Nanjing, the capital of China’s Nationalist government. France could not afford a war with China at a time when it was fighting Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh forces. This would risk Chinese intervention in support of the Viet Minh.


On his side, Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek was under pressure from his Kuomintang Party to stand firm behind his nation’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. Although he needed to concentrate on his war with Mao Zedong’s Red Army, Chiang could not make concessions to colonial power.