Sino-Vietnamese Border Issues


Professor NGUYEN VAN CANH, Ph.D., is the former Deputy Dean of the Saigon Faculty of Law before 1975. Currently Member of the Hoover Institute, Stanford University.

On December 25, 2000, Tran Duc Luong, President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), went to China on a goodwill visit and signed an agreement with his counterpart on territorial waters in the Gulf of Tonkin.

In December 1999, Vietnam had signed a similar agreement about land borders, which was ratified by the Vietnamese National Assembly in June 2000. Neither party made any mention of the Paracels and Spratley Islands. In this article, we will analyze the issues of land and maritime borders between China and Vietnam.

I. The issue of land boundaries

Objectives of the agreement and legal framework for the settlement of border disputes

On November 5, 1991, Do Muoi, then Secretary general of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), and Vo Van Kiet, then Premier of the SRV, went to Beijing to reestablish diplomatic relations. They also signed three accords. One of these was a temporary accord about land boundaries. It spelled out some basic principles to help both parties maintain peace and stability while waiting for a final solution to border disputes. At issue were security, smuggling, social order, and movement across the border. Both parties planned to conduct talks to settle their differences and were anxious to make the border one of peace and friendship. Back in the late fifties, between 1957 and 1958 in particular, the Labor Party of Vietnam and the Communist Party of China had agreed in their correspondence that the "Sino-Vietnamese boundaries set up by Sino-French accords are to be respected", and that "the status-quo on the boundaries must be maintained, pending settlement between the two governments. The Sino-French accords and agreements to be signed will serve as bases for negotiations."(1) They were referring to a series of border agreements the French signed with the Chinese from 1885 to 1895, immediately following their occupation of North Vietnam. The April 25, 1886 Accord signed in Tien-Tsin, the June 26, 1887 Agreement and its supplement, the June 26, 1895 Convention, signed in Beijing, described the specific geographical positions of border markers, natural or man-made monuments or objects as reference points. About 300 markers were subsequently placed at these positions.

Status of boundaries before and after the 17- day war

In February 1979, the CPC deployed some 350,000 troops along the border, then sent an army of 220,000 men into Vietnam. They launched fierce attacks on the 6 Vietnamese provinces stretching along the border. The purpose of the attack, said Dengxiao-ping, was to teach the CPV a lesson for invading Cambodia and toppling the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge. The Chinese invaders moved deep - sometimes as far as 40 kilometers - into Vietnamese territory. They occupied 23 cities and towns and destroyed some entirely. After 17 days, the CPC declared that the objective of the exercise had been achieved and on March 13, the Chinese army went home. However, Chinese troops were still seen occupying strategic hills and positions which they described as an "area belonging to the Vietnamese territory".

After the war, a Vietnamese customs office was relocated 480 meters south from the previous site at the Friendship Gate. Though diplomatic relations were reestablished in November 1991, land grabbing by the Chinese went on. In May 1992 an armed conflict erupted on Highway 1, in Lang Son province, at a location not far from the Friendship Gate because a Chinese military unit had implanted a new border marker 400 meters inside Vietnamese territory. As of July 1992, the Chinese forces had taken over 36 locations along the border, an area of 8,000 hectares. In subsequent years, Chinese troops would at times cross the border, drive Vietnamese peasants from their villages in the Cao Bang and Lang Son provinces and bum their homes. In some areas, after evicting Vietnamese peasants from their lands, the Chinese would bring their own people and resettle them there.

This land grabbing by the Chinese goes back to the fifties. In 1954, the CPC sent workers to help Vietnam build a railroad from Hanoi to the Friendship Gate. Chinese workers relocated a border marker 300 meters inside Vietnam. Hanoi took it as a mistake by the Chinese workers but the CFIC stated that the position of the marker was exactly where it should be, on the joint border. This conflict was never resolved even though the two countries were close friends during the following two decades.

When the agreement on land border was signed, both countries announced that 70 disputed areas along the 1,300-km border had been taken care of, but the Vietnamese people were not given any specific information - how large these areas were, in what way the conflict was resolved, whether they were returned to Vietnam. They are entitled to know what is going on behind the scenes.

II. Demarcation of the Gulf of Tonkin

The joint declaration made on Dec. 25, 2000 by Tran Duc Luong and Jiang Zemin on the occasion of the signing the accord to demarcate the waters in the Gulf said: "The signing of the border treaty between the two countries and the Agreement on the demarcation of the territorial waters would help create preconditions for making both the land and Gulf borders into borders of friendship and long-lasting stability". This would in turn "strengthen mutual trust and understanding, facilitate the development of each country and make an important contribution to the cause for peace and cooperation and development in the region and the world".

Legal basis for negotiations

The "Sino-French accords and agreements to be approved by both sides later on are also used for the negotiation" as in the case of land borders. Therefore, the June 6, 1885 accord and Convention of June 6, 1887 regarding the boundaries of the Gulf will serve as "the fundamental principles governing the settlement of the maritime issues between the two countries".

Article 2 of the June 6, 1887 Convention stipulated "Toward Kouang-tong, it is understood that the points of conflict that are situated to the East and Northeast of Monkai, beyond the border as fixed by the Commission on Delimitation, will belong to China. 'Re islands situated to the East of the Meridian of Paris 105 degree 43 of the longitude East, i.e. East of the North-South line passing the Eastern point of the Tch'akou or Ouan-Chau (Tra-co) that forms a border are also attributed to China. The Go-tho islands and other islands to the West of the meridian belong to Annam".

A North-South Red Line drawn on the map, starting at a point located at the joint border in Monkai, was used as reference. Two negotiations were held: one in August 1974 and the other in October 1977 to delineate the Gulf, but with no results.

Conflict on line of demarcation

In the meeting that took place in August 1974, the CPV used the 1887 Convention as the basis for negotiation, referring to the Greenwich longitude 108 degree, 3 minutes and 13 seconds East, or the Paris meridian 105 degrees 43 of the longitude East as a demarcation line (the Red Line).

The CPC protested, saying that the Red Line was used only to show who owned the surrounding islands. It was not a demarcation line. As a consequence, the negotiations were deadlocked. By refuting the Red Line as a demarcation line, the CPC claimed that Vietnam occupied two-thirds of the territorial waters of the Gulf and that China was in a very weak position when she signed the Sino-French agreements. It conveniently made no mention of the fact that the French had given China a portion of land in the northernmost part of Lai Chau, province in exchange for the Red Line. The French truly abused their power by illegally transferring Vietnamese land to China.

Vietnam's geographical form is that of the letter S. From the starting point of the S which is located in Monkai - a joint spot between the two countries -to the south, the joint Commission on Delimitation drew the Red Line. The territorial waters to the West of the line belong to Vietnam and those to the East belong to China. Such a division of the ownership of the waters is reasonable and deemed appropriate. It was in compliance with the theory of Adjacent Territorial. Waters governed by the rules of International Public Laws.

Finally, if the Red Line's only purpose is to determine the ownership of the islands in the Gulf, and is not a demarcation line as alleged by the CPC, what is it then since it forms a border dividing the waters? The Chinese continued to abuse their power and unilaterally expand their ownership over the Gulf.

Expansion by the CPC

On August 19 and 30,1992, two Chinese ships were dispatched to the Gulf for a so-called scientific research. Another ship, Phan Dau 5, completed a seismic survey on August 30 in the southern area of the Gulf. On September 30, the Nam Hai 6, an oil-drilling rig, was sent to an area that according to Hanoi was 112 Kilometers southeast of the port of Balat. The ships crossed the Red Line and were deep inside Vietnamese waters.

When Hanoi protested, the CPC replied that "the oil research ships operated within Chinese territorial waters, in reference to the line of the Gulf". In 1983, the CPC also produced a new map, drawing a new boundary of the Eastern Sea that they called South China Sea. They claimed that the whole South China Sea - 3 million out of 3.5 million square kilorneters of the Gulf of Tonkin - belonged to China.

III. Conclusion.

  1. The contents of the border negotiations between the CPC and CPV are not disclosed. In Vietnam, only the higher echelons of the CPV know how much land has been lost to China, how much Vietnam has taken back. The Vietnamese people have the right to ask the CPV to reveal the full terms of the agreement.
  2. Based on past evidences that the CPC has taken land from Vietnam, that the CPV has not endeavored to take it back, and that, in some instances, the CPV has not dared protest against Chinese invasions, the Vietnamese people can reasonably suspect that this is an illegal transfer of Vietnamese land to China. This argument is substantiated by the fact that Pham Van Dong as Premier of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had, on September 14, 1958, sent an official letter to his 1 Chinese counterpart Chou en Lai, acknowledging that the whole Eastern Sea did indeed belong to China, after the latter declared the region Chinese territory.
  3. Throughout the negotiations, Han nianlong, China's Vice minister for South East Asia Affairs and head of the Negotiation Delegation since the 1970's, mentioned that the two communist parties were involved in guidance and decisions.

    This was strictly their business and had nothing to do with the Vietnamese people. The CPV had no power to represent them. If any agency signed or ratified the agreements, that body was just the CPV's instrument performing its duties to achieve the CPV's goals. Do Muoi who was a secretary general of the CPV, held no position in the SRV government when he went to China in 1991 to sign a joint accord with the CPC that provided directions for the conclusion of the two above- mentioned agreements. These agreements are not binding on the Vietnamese people.
  4. The CPV has to answer for any illegal transfer of any part of Vietnamese land to China under any circumstances, especially if it was made in exchange for support for its leaders to stay in power.
  5. For the Vietnamese people, these transactions constitute private business between the two communist parties. If the CPC does not return any portion of land that they have occupied, the agreements are considered null.

For these reasons, Vietnamese Intellectuals Overseas on July 22, 1994, then the Committee To Protect The Territory on April 29, 1995 and December 18, 2000 issued declarations to publicly express their position on the matter.




(1) Han nianlong, head of the Chinese negotiation delegation, "Speech" delivered at the fourth plenary meeting held on May 12, 1979 at vice-ministerial level, Beijing Review, No 2 1, May 25, 1979.

(2) Han nianlong, above cited