239. Intelligence Assessment Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1

PA 79–10200D

China–Vietnam: Territorial and Jurisdictional Disputes


A wide variety of issues are likely to be discussed in Sino-Vietnamese peace negotiations now under way in Hanoi. Conflicting national ambitions in Southeast Asia, Vietnam’s invasion of Kampuchea, and China’s alarm over Vietnam’s growing ties with the Soviet Union were the root cause of the recent fighting, and these same factors are going to determine the tone and the course of the peace talks. However, Hanoi and Beijing also have a number of real territorial and jurisdictional disputes that became public in 1978–79 as bilateral relations deteriorated.

In lengthy Foreign Ministry memorandums published last March, Beijing and Hanoi spelled out their respective positions on the three outstanding territorial differences between them: the land border, the Gulf of Tonkin sea boundary, and offshore islands. While summarizing their respective claims, the memorandums also served to highlight the differences in the Chinese and Vietnamese approaches to each dispute—underscoring the fact that some will be more easily settled than others but that resolution of any of them will depend upon an improvement in their overall relations.

The land border should be the easiest of the disputes to resolve. There is no basic disagreement over its correct alignment, although some minor differences have arisen over the demarcation of the border on the ground. However, sizable troop deployments on both sides of the border and both countries’ use of the dispute for propaganda pur [Page 867] poses to serve foreign and domestic policy objectives will complicate the negotiations.

The dispute over the Gulf of Tonkin sea boundary will prove to be very difficult to resolve even under the best of political circumstances. Diametrically opposed stands on the demarcation of the sea boundary coupled with conflicting principles of international law guarantee that negotiations will be long and arduous even if the political will exists to resolve the issue. The desire of both countries to exploit oil in the Gulf will at least initially intensify the dispute, although in the long run this factor may provide the impetus to compromise.

The dispute over the ownership of the Paracel and Spratly Islands will be virtually impossible to resolve at the negotiating table. The Chinese control the Paracels, and the Vietnamese occupy six of the Spratly Islands; both countries are taking measures to strengthen their respective positions. Because of their strategic location and offshore oil potential, neither side is prepared to negotiate a change in the status quo nor renounce its territorial claims to them.

Few expect the peace talks to resolve the territorial and jurisdictional disputes, let alone the deeper political and strategic conflict. If an accommodation cannot be reached on the broader political plane these disputes could become the focal points for any future confrontation between China and Vietnam.

[Omitted here is the body of the paper.]

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Job 80T00942A, Box 9, Folder 13, May 1979, China–Vietnam: Territorial and Jurisdictional Disputes. Secret. Research for this report was completed on April 20. Prepared in the Office of Geographic and Cartographic Research and the Office of Political Analysis, with assistance from the Office of Strategic Research, and coordinated with the Office of Strategic Research, the Office of Economic Research, the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, and the National Intelligence Officer for China.