By: Bill Hayton

1933 diplomatic protest?

One argument that is key to China’s claim to the Spratlys is the oft-repeated assertion that the Republic of China made a formal protest to the Government of France following the latter’s formal annexation of several features in the Spratly Islands on 26 July 1933. It’s certainly true that the annexation provoked consternation in government and nationalist anger among the public. But was a formal protest ever lodged?

Tao Cheng, in his 1975 paper, references an article in Xin Ya Xi Ya Yue Kan [Hsin-ya-hsi-ya yueh kan] (New Asia Monthly), from two years later, 1935. Chiu and Park state in a footnote that, “there is proof that China also protested.” They reference an article in Wai-chiao yüeh-pao [Diplomacy monthly] by Cho Min, and a 1948 book by Cheng Tzu-yüeh Nan-hai chu-tao ti-li chih-lūeh [General records on the geography of southern islands].

However, they concede that, “The date of the Chinese note was not reported in Cheng’s book, nor is it mentioned in the “Memorandum on Four Large Archipelagoes of the Republic of China in South Sea,” issued by the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs in February 1974. See Lien-ho-pao [United daily news], overseas edition, February 25, 1974, p. 3.”

This claim appears in Ambassador Freeman’s presentation and in the CNA paper – which quoted Shen. In his 1997 paper Shen quotes two sources: Cheng and Chiu and Park – but as we have just seen – they do not provide any references for their claim. In his 2002 paper, Shen references papers from the State Oceanic Administration’s symposium. These papers are not available outside China but there is good evidence that all of these works are simply wrong.

Francois-Xavier Bonnet has found American records showing that immediately after the French announcement the Chinese government had to ask its consul in Manila, Mr Kuan-ling Kwong to ask the American colonial authorities there for a map showing their location. Only then was the government in Nanjing able to understand that these islands were not in the Paracels and then decide not to issue any formal protest.

According to Bonnet, the reason is evident from minutes of a meeting of the Republic of China’s Military Council on 1 September 1933, “All our professional geographers say that Triton Island [in the Paracels] is the southernmost island of our territory.” The RoC decided that it had no claim in the Spratly Islands at that point and therefore had nothing to protest against.

Research by Chris Chung, a Canadian PhD student, has found that by 1946, RoC files were referring to China’s formal protest in 1933 as if it were fact. This then became the Chinese justification to “reclaim” the islands from Japan after the Second World War.

In summary, what seems to have happened is that over the 13 years after the French annexation a different understanding of what had happened in 1933 took hold in RoC governing circles. My hypothesis is that Chinese officials confused a real 1932 protest to the French about activity in the Paracels with a non-existent 1933 protest about the Spratlys.”

1930s surveys

In his 2002 paper, Shen claims the RoC, “organized three rounds of large-scale survey and renaming activities respectively in 1932, 1935 and 1947” (p.107) but there was no surveying work done in the Spratly Islands, just copying from international maps. This seems to be why the RoC mistranslated the name of the James Shoal – initially calling it Zengmu Tan. Zeng-mu is simply the transliteration of James. Tan means sandbank, when in fact the shoal is underwater. By this simple mis-translation a piece of seabed became an island and to this day is regarded as China’s southernmost territory – even though it doesn’t exist! The names were revised by the RoC in 1947 (at which point Zengmu Tan became Zengmu Ansha – reef) and the again by the PRC in 1983.

The Cairo Declaration

Shen (2002 p139) and Xi and Tan (2014) follow the PRC foreign ministry in arguing that, under the 1943 Cairo Declaration, the wartime allies awarded the South China Sea islands to China. The CAN paper discusses this claim and explicitly rejects it on the grounds that,

“The Cairo Declaration, as reinforced by the Potsdam Proclamation, only provides that China would recover Manchuria, Formosa [Taiwan], and the Pescadores [Penghu Islands] after the war. The next sentence simply provides that Japan would be expelled from “other territories” which it had taken by violence, but it does not indicate that these “other territories” would be returned to China. Although not specifically stated, the only logical conclusion is that these “other territories” included the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which were seized by violence from France, not China.” (p97)

Freeman (2015), however, argues that, because the Japanese authorities incorporated the Paracels and Spratlys into their province of Taiwan, the Cairo Declaration returns them, along with the rest of “Taiwan Province” to China. But the Declaration doesn’t mention the word “Taiwan.” it talks about Formosa and the Pescadores. The logical conclusion is that the allies only agreed that these particular islands should be returned to China.

Japanese Surrender in the Paracels

The CNA paper and Ambassador Freeman’s presentation both carry claims that Chinese forces received the surrender of the Japanese garrisons in the Paracels and Spratlys at the end of the Second World War. Freeman has argued that the US Navy actually transported Chinese forces to the islands for this purpose. In personal communication with the author he has not been able to provide any corroborating evidence for the assertion.

Based upon evidence from US and Australian military archives, the claim seems very unlikely to be true. During the war Japan had military bases on Woody and Pattle islands in the Paracels and Itu Aba in the Spratlys. Woody Island was shelled by the submarine USS Pargo on 6 February 1945 and on 8 March American aircraft bombed both it and Pattle Island. When another submarine, the USS Cabrilla, visited Woody Island on 2 July, the French tricolour was flying, but this time with a white flag above it.

Itu Aba was napalmed by US planes on 1 May 1945. Six months later, the US Navy sent a reconnaissance mission to Itu Aba, It landed on 20 November 1945 and found the island unoccupied – the Japanese had fled.

It wasn’t until more than a year later – December 1946 that a Chinese landing party – using second-hand American warships just transferred to the RoC Navy – was able to reach the island. (The French had arrived two months before and reclaimed the island but that’s rarely mentioned in Chinese sources.) The Chinese name for Itu Aba is Taiping Dao, named after the warship that carried the landing party. The Taiping was previously the USS Decker. The irony is that if the US had not supplied those warships China would have no claim in the Spratly Islands today.


A review of the verifiable evidence tells a different history about the islands in the South China Sea than that found in the most of the commonly used reference texts. The Chinese state’s interest in them only dates from the 20th Century. There’s no evidence yet put forward for any Chinese state official visiting the Paracel Islands before 6 June 1909. It was only in 1933 that national attention was turned to the Spratly Islands – and at that time the Republic of China decided not to press a claim to them. Attention was revived immediately after the Second World War, based on misunderstandings about what happened in 1933 and for the first time ever, a Chinese official landed in the Spratly Islands on 12 December 1946.

In 1933, 1956, 1974 and again today histories of the islands were written and rewritten. During each crisis advocates of the Chinese position published new versions of history that often recycled earlier mistakes and sometimes added in more of their own. By the time these accounts leapt the language barrier into English in the mid-1970s their shaky foundations appeared solid to those exploring the history for the first time. They were printed in western academic journals and “become fact.” But a review of their sources reveals their inherent weakness.

It is no longer good enough for advocates of the Chinese claim to base their arguments on such baseless evidence. It is time that a concerted effort was made to re-examine the primary sources for many of the assertions put forward by these writers and reassess their accuracy. The resolution of the disputes depends on it – both in the courtrooms of The Hague and in the waters of the South China Sea.

Former BBC correspondent Bill Hayton is the author of  ‘The South China Sea: the struggle for power in Asia,’ called ‘the first book to make clear sense of the South Sea disputes.