WASHINGTON — As the showdown over a controversial oil rig continues in the South China Sea, an old letter has emerged as a focal point in the war of words between Vietnam and China over the Paracel Islands.
Earlier this week, China used the controversial letter that the late Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong sent to his Chinese counterpart, Zhou Enlai, as evidence of Hanoi’s official acknowledgement of China’s sovereignty over the disputed archipelago.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang accused Vietnam of bending history, denying facts and going back on its word.
He spoke after the deputy director of Vietnam's National Boundary Commission told reporters in Hanoi that Dong’s note "did not mention the territorial and sovereign issue."
“The content of the official letter only noted and recognized the 12 nautical mile expansion of China’s territorial water, and urged Vietnamese agencies to respect the announcement," Tran Duy Hai said.
"It did not mention [the Spratlys] or [the Paracels], reflecting the reality of that time when the two island chains were under the administration of South Vietnam, in accordance with a 1954 Geneva treaty to which China was a party,” he said.
In an email sent to VOA’s Vietnamese Service, Le Hai Binh, Vietnam’s diplomatic spokesperson, wrote, Vietnam has “sufficient historical evidence and legal basis to assert its indisputable sovereignty over the [Paracel] islands.”
China seized the Paracels from South Vietnam after engaging in a deadly sea battle in January 1974, killing 74 sailors from the then-U.S.-backed South Vietnamese navy.
Ta Van Tai, a lawyer and former lecturer at Harvard University, told VOA’s Vietnamese Service that Dong’s letter has no "legal validity."
“It is a unilateral declaration, and it did not amount to the territorial concession treaty under the constitution at that time," Tai said.
"He could not act on behalf of President Ho Chi Minh, who had the right to sign the treaty. It is the national assembly that had the final say in this case,” he said.
Tai added that ‘there were two separate nations [in the North and the South of Vietnam]’, and the late prime minister did not represent the South, which administered Hoang Sa at that time.
Dissidents have long used Dong’s note to criticize the Vietnamese government for conceding its territory to China - a charge Hanoi strongly denies.
Relations between the two Communist neighbors have plunged to the lowest point in years, following Beijing's decision to locate an oil rig in disputed waters near the Paracel Islands.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Vietnamese service.