851G.014/7: Telegram

The Ambassador in France (Bullitt) to the Secretary of State

613. We have inquired at the Foreign Office what information they have received regarding the Japanese “annexation” of Spratley [Page 114] Islands. The Foreign Office received this morning a note cabled from Tokyo by the French Ambassador to whom it was delivered yesterday by the Japanese Government. The Japanese note was written in reply to a French note of early this year. The French note proposed the settlement of the long standing controversy over the ownership of the Islands by submission to arbitration. The Japanese note answers with the announcements that Japan has assumed jurisdiction over Spratley Islands on March 30, 1939.

Officials of the Far Eastern Division of the Foreign Office with whom we talked take a serious view of the matter. It is the first time the Japanese have formally occupied French territory. It is being discussed in Cabinet meeting this morning. They explain that by a decree of 1933 the Islands were declared a French possession complement to Indo-China. The Japanese contested the French claim and the dispute has been carried on with a long exchange of notes each party basing its title to ownership on prior occupation. At present the Islands are occupied by both Japanese coolies and fishermen and by French Annamite militia. Although the latter possess a wireless, the Foreign Office does not yet know whether any further Japanese occupation has accompanied the declaration of assuming jurisdiction.

Our informants see in the Japanese move not only evidence of ill will toward France but a two-fold purpose: 1, to place their claim on a parity juridically with the French “annexation”; 2, acquire the Islands for use as a seaplane and submarine base at a time when the other powers whose interests are vitally affected are powerless to prevent it. They point out that Japanese action was taken at a moment when France and Great Britain were faced with a most critical situation in Europe.