A rare recent discovery at the UK National Archives may provide yet another piece of evidence that casts doubt on China’s claim of historic rights to Paracels (Vietnam calls it the Hoang Sa)- an area currently under disputes in the South China Sea (East Sea as Vietnam names it).
After months of painstakingly searching the archives, Bill Hayton, a former journalist and researcher, found a semi-official document that shows that: Until the late Qing Dynasty, the Chinese authorities still did not consider Paracels to be part of its territory.
Hayton, author of the books “The Invention of China” published in 2020 and “South China Sea” in 2014, discovered an 1899 translation of a letter, in which the Qing Dynasty’s agency equivalent of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – informed British officials that the Chinese government could not accept responsibility for the looting of a ship that occurred late in late 1890s in Paracels.
The letter refers to the so-called “Copper Bellona Ship Case” – an incident involving the German ship Bellona that was wrecked in Paracels a few years earlier and the amount of copper cargo that the ship was carrying. The good was stolen by the Chinese fishermen.
The Chinese government “refuses to pay” for the volume of copper items insured by the UK because the archipelago is in the “high seas” and is not part of China’s territory.
The original Chinese letter has yet to be found and it is most likely lost or destroyed, so this translation is to date the first and only contemporary copy of the document. This official Chinese data is found to this day.
Hayton said that he also found a transcription of another letter from the Governor General of Liangguang – an area comprising the two provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi – addressed to Mr. Byron Brenan, the British consul in Guangzhou on April 14, 1898 about the same incident. Governor General Tan Chung Lan wrote that the Chinese government could not protect the shipwrecks because they were in the “deep blue sea” and so China could not accept the compensation claims.
“This is still not solid evidence,” Mr Hayton said. “But this could be useful information for Vietnam to make the argument that China was only interested in Paracels later.”
The case of the Ballona bronze ship was also mentioned in a letter from the Governor-General of Indochina to the French Minister in charge of Colonies in 1930. In the letter, the Viceroy of Guangdong was quoted as saying that Paracels were “waste islands” and “do not belong to China or Vietnam” and “no special agency is responsible for controlling these islands.”
Politically, such issues of historical evidence remain sensitive for the South China Sea claimant states – especially since China often justifies maritime and its extensive territory claims on the basis of historic rights – a position rejected by an international arbitration tribunal in 2016 in a case initiated by the Philippines.
Nguyen Nha, a famous Vietnamese historian, acknowledged that the newly discovered letter is a valuable document affirming that Paracels are not Chinese.
Vietnam, Taiwan and China all claim sovereignty over the Paracels, which are now completely under Chinese control.
Both Hanoi and Beijing have produced many historical documents, often copies or imitations because it is nearly impossible to find the originals to substantiate their claims.
Hayton’s discovery has attracted the attention of researchers on the South China Sea.
Stein Tonnesson, a Norwegian historian and South China Sea researcher, said that the letter “could help confirm other sources that the Qing Dynasty at that time did not consider Paracels as Chinese territory.”
“However, in 1909 this country claimed the Paracels as their territory and I am not sure that the absence of a claim in 1899 would invalidate the claim it made 10 years later. are not.”
“China will confuse matters by questioning the authenticity of the letter,” warned Ian Storey, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore (ISEAS).
On social media, Hayton’s statuses about the letter stirred public opinion. Some critics have questioned the accuracy of the English translation of the letter.
Hayton said he believes “There will be an alphabetical transcription of the Chinese letter somewhere” and he is looking for it.
Regardless of the outcome, according to researcher Storey, “no single piece of evidence can be enough to bring an end to the long war over documents and maps between Vietnam and China.”