For years I’ve been avoiding the topic of the islands in the Southeast Asian Sea, in part because I’ve been turned off by the way that many people have approached this topic. In article after article I’ve seen authors simply take current ideas about sovereignty and then project them into the past.
So, for instance, if a map from the early nineteenth century has a line around some islands, then someone will interpret this as proof that the islands were part of the “sovereign territory” of a nation.
The problem, of course, is that the concept of sovereignty did not exist in Asia at that time. Yes, of course kingdoms had territory and maps existed, but none of this was conceived in the exact same way that it is today.
Instead, people think the way they do today about their country’s land because they have adopted many ideas from the West (including the concept of sovereignty). This transformation is nicely documented for Siam in Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped, but the same transformation took place in all of the other areas of Asia as well.
Beyond that, there is the added level of complexity that comes from the fact that at the same time that ideas like sovereignty were introduced, a place like Vietnam went from being a premodern kingdom, to a part of the French colonial empire, to a part of the Japanese wartime empire, to an independent nation, all of which had an impact on actual territorial borders as well as the way that territory was conceived. (Christopher Goscha’s Going Indochinese: Contesting Concepts of Space and Place in French Indochina deals with some aspects of this topic.)
The question then becomes how do you determine sovereignty today in the aftermath of all of these intellectual and political changes?
As I said, what many people have been doing has just been to take our current understanding of sovereignty and to then look for evidence to support the idea that islands in the sea “belonged” to a “nation” in the past.
A loyal reader recently encouraged me to read Vô Long Tê’s 1974 work, Les Archipels de Hoàng-Sa et de Trường-Sa selon les Anciens Ouvrages Vietnamiens d’Histoire et de Géographie. The author did a wonderful job of collecting together information from pre-twentieth-century Vietnamese sources that make reference to the Paracels and the Spratlys. However, his analysis largely follows the same logic as that of many people today, i.e., the existence of references to these islands in Vietnamese sources demonstrates that they have long been part of the national territory.
What I find more interesting in this book is the information that Vô Long Tê included about the efforts of the French to demonstrate that the Paracels and Spratlys were part of their empire. In particular, the author cites public declarations that the French authorities made in the 1930s that clearly stipulated that those islands were part of French Indochina.
This led me to look for more information about that period. In the process I came across an interesting article from 1933 by Olivier A. Saix which talked about the efforts on the part of the French at that time to annex the Paracels.
In order to do this, the French did a couple of things: 1) they tried to prove that no one else had a valid claim to those islands, and 2) they sent someone to look through pre-twentieth-century Vietnamese sources to find evidence that the islands were historically part of the Vietnamese empire.
In this respect, what the French did was exactly what many Vietnamese are doing today. However, in addition to these activities, the French did much more. First, they made a public declaration of their claim to the islands (as detailed in Vô Long Tê’s book), and second, they sent people to peacefully establish a government presence on those islands.
I think these last two actions are important, as I was reading an article today by Hong Thao Nguyen entitled “Vietnam’s Position on the Sovereignty over the Paracels & the Spratlys: Its Maritime Claim” in which the author pointed out that in determining the sovereignty of contested areas, international law has in some cases relied on something known as the “principle of effectiveness” which essentially argues that a state can claim sovereignty over unclaimed (res nullius) and abandoned (res derelicta) territories through the “peaceful and continuous display of State authority.”
While the Nguyễn Dynasty exerted some authority over the Paracels and Spratlys, it looks to me like it was the French who were the first to demonstrate a “peaceful and continuous display of State authority” over the Paracels.
What is more, they did so at a time when the concept of sovereignty, and when international laws that recognized sovereignty, had become well established in Asia.
Now I’m sure that international law is much more complex than this, but it also seems to me that the key to demonstrating sovereignty in that region is not by showing “who was there first” and assuming that sovereignty is something eternal, but instead by demonstrating who established sovereignty over those islands through the means that international law can recognize.
If the French were the first to clearly do that, then the next question to consider would be how the authority of a colonial empire gets passed on to an independent state.
That topic is too complex for my simple mind, so it’s time for me to stop writing about this topic, but I think that the key to this topic is seeing where history and international law intersect, and as far as I can tell, that first happened in the 1930s (but there are undoubtedly people more knowledgeable about this topic than me who have other ideas).
In any case, trying to find sovereignty before there was sovereignty just doesn’t make sense to me.
For those who are interested, I’m attaching below a copy of Vô Long Tê’s book and the article by Saix.