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Tonkin Gulf
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Tonkin Gulf's Disputes

The Tonkin Gulf & The Territorial Sea Conflict between Vietnam and China

There are principally three areas in the South China Sea that are disputed by China and Vietnam. The first is the Tonkin Gulf region where the People Republic of China (PRC) and Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) cannot agree on where the national borders have been officially demarcated. The second area is the Paracels, an archipelago southeast of Hainan Island, and the Spratlys, a chain east of Ho Chi Minh city. In addition to China's and Vietnam's disputing claims to the islands, other nation-states in the region also maintain that they have a legal ownership to all or part of the islands. In recent years, the promise of oil deposits in and around these islands, and in the continental-shelf regions of the Gulf of Tonkin, have increased the relative importance of the islands both to the PRC and the SRV.

Physical Descriptions of the Territories under Dispute

The Gulf of Tonkin is that area of the South China Sea immediately south and east of the easternmost border shared by China and Vietnam (see map). It lies between China's Hainan Island and the Vietnamese mainland. The water depth in the gulf ranges from around 60 feet to 300 meters, making it attractive for offshore oil exploration. The gulf is fed by many rivers, the largest being the Red River (which flows from China, where it is known as the Yuan, through Vietnam, where it collects the waters of other large rivers before emptying into the gulf).

The Paracels are 150 miles from the southern coast of Hainan Island, and 240 nautical miles from Da Nang, Vietnam. Vietnam, China, and Taiwan all claim the islands, though China has maintained complete control of the island group since 1974. The archipelago consists of two groups, the Amphitrite group and the Crescent group. In total the two groups contain about fifteen islets and several major sand banks and reefs. The Paracels are known to the Chinese as the Xisha (Western Sand (Western Islands, and to the Vietnamese as the Hoang Sa (Yellow Sand) Islands.

The Paracels were used in the past as a source of guano, tropical fruits, some lumber, fresh water, and an area excellent for commercial fishing. The main interest for the Chinese in recent years has been for oil exploration and in maintaining an offshore base to monitor the sea traffic of the South China Sea.

The Spratly archipelago extends over 1,000 kilometers from north to south. It is approximately 650 kilometers east of the Vietnamese coast, 1,000 kilometers south of Hainan Island, 160 kilometers west of the Sarawak (Malaysian) coast, and 100 kilometers west of Palawan Island (Philippines). Several countries have made claims to all or part of the Spratly archipelago. The entire archipelago is claimed by China and Vietnam, though the PRC has no representation on the island chain today. Vietnam has maintained control of seven islands in the archipelago for several decades, the Philippines has held six islands since 1971, and a ROC (Taiwan) garrison has held the island of Itu Aba in the chain since 1949. Malaysia has also made claims to the Islands in the past, but seems to have been less vocal on the matter in recent years.

There are four principal groups in the Spratly Islands. The Western Spratlys contain approximately thirty small islands, reefs, banks, and shoals, and is where most of the more significant islands are located. The Southern Shoals make up the second group of islands, and is mostly comprised of small reefs and shoals. The Dangerous Area, the third group, is comprised of shallow reefs and rocks. Most of this area is uncharted and is avoided by ships and fishermen due to the hazards of navigating in these waters. The final group, the Eastern Spratlys, consists of eleven islands and reefs, and is controlled almost exclusively by the Philippines. Of the four groups, only the Western Spratlys have proven to be of significant economic worth. The islands in this group have supplies of fresh water, grasses, trees, guano, and significant oil deposits are believed to lie in the shelf area around the islands. Fishing is abundant in all four groups.

The Spratlys are referred to by the Chinese as the Nansha, or Southern Sands. The Vietnamese call the archipelago the Truong Sa, or the Storm or Tempest Islands. All of the individual islands in the four groups have been given both Chinese and Vietnamese names.

The case of Tonkin Gulf Dispute

The major obstacle in the Tonkin Gulf dispute centers around determining where the historical treaty of 1887 between the French and the Chinese intended the Sino-Vietnamese boundary to be and whether or not that boundary is acceptable to both sides. Indeed there is no clear reference to the Gulf of Tonkin in the text of the treaty itself. A later agreement between the French and the Chinese allowing for trade between China and Annam mentions a few general details about the Tonkin Gulf, but the references there only deal with the issuance of permits and policing boat traffic on the gulf.

In 1977, both sides agreed to meet on the issue of determining the borders of the Bac Bo or Bei Bu Gulf, thus suggesting there had been problems in determining where the official boundary was. (Bac Bo is what the Vietnamese refer to as the northern area of the Tonkin Gulf where this dispute is centered; the Chinese refer to it as Bei Bu.) Though the details of the discussions are not available, it appears the dispute focuses in part on certain aspects of the twelve-mile territorial sea limit and 200-mile economic sea limit as discussed in the United Nations Third Law of the Sea Conference. Both the SRV and the PRC have pledged support to the technical aspects embodied in the Law of the Sea, but the problem of where the boundary actually exists in the Tonkin Gulf continues to cloud agreement as to where SRV claims end and PRC ownership begins and vice-versa.

There are claims that Chinese territory begins at longitude 108 degrees east. If this is so, then the Vietnamese would receive two-thirds of the waters in the gulf, and the Chinese would receive the Paracels. This is considered unacceptable to both the PRC and the SRV, as both sides want all of the disputed claims for themselves. Both the foreign ministry statement of the SRV of March 16, 1979, and the speech delivered by Chinese Vice-Minister Han Nianlong on May 12, 1979, at the Sino-Vietnamese peace talks mentioned the dispute surrounding the boundary in the Tonkin Gulf, but no specifics were mentioned from either side. This is probably because the dispute over the Tonkin Gulf has been overshadowed by the disagreements over the island groups. But its importance must not be underestimated, especially since both sides have repeatedly fired on boats drifting into disputed waters, and since both sides have moved their oil exploring activities closer to disputed waters. Since the dispute in the gulf began in earnest in 1978, both sides have tried to stay clear of the other's waters in order to prevent a major ocean conflict.

Though there is not a great deal known about the details of the Bei Bu or Bac Bo Gulf dispute, we can summarize generally about the situation:

1. The boundary dividing the territorial waters of the PRC and SRV is not clearly defined. Part of this is because the language of the treaty and subsequent documents discussing the area is vague. Much of the treaty referring to the gulf refers to imaginary points on a map, rather than to distinct physical aspects of the gulf. Second, due to the proximity of the Vietnamese and Chinese mainlands to the disputed waters, neither side is willing to chance giving up waters that are considered to be important in terms of security.

2. The conflict looms larger due to the overall deterioration of relations between the PRC and SRV. The number of disputes rose sharply when problems arose such as the expulsion of ethnic Chinese residents from Vietnam and Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia. In recent years, particularly since 1975, the gulf has become more important to both countries due to the prospect of exploiting oil resources in the region.

3. The Law of the Sea provides mechanisms for dealing with disputes, but the above disagreements do not necessarily address the possibilities of resolving territorial problems as envisioned by the UN convention.

4. Finally, the Tonkin Gulf dispute is overshadowed by other aspects of the Sino-Vietnamese conflict, as well as other territorial conflicts that receive more attention from Hanoi and Beijing. There is also the absence of any third party either involved or affected by the conflict. This does not hold true for the other territorial conflicts.

If agreement should be made on other border or territorial issues between the two capitals, most likely it will be reflected in a decrease in incidents and rhetoric concerning the northern end of the Tonkin Gulf.

(Dragons Entangled, Indochine and the Chinese Vietnam War, Steven J. Hood, New York, 1992, pp. 119-124)