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Official Gazette

Saturday, August 13, 2022

A line runs through it: Vietnam and China complete boundary marking process

Updated: 10:14’ - 28/04/2009

National Border Committee
Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The borderline between Vietnam and China stretches about 1,400 km (including some 300 km of river and stream borderlines) along seven Vietnamese provinces (from west to east): Dien Bien, Lai Chau, Lao Cai, Ha Giang, Cao Bang, Lang Son and Quang Ninh, bordering on Yunnan province and Chuang autonomous region, Quangxi province. Lai Chau has a 294.52 km border with China (including 214 km of land border and 80.52 km of river or stream border); Dien Bien 38.5 km transferred from Lai Chau province after its separation; Lao Cai 183.12 km (including 48.41 km of land border and 134.71 km of river or stream border); Ha Giang 271.4 km (including 241 km of land border and 30.4 km of river or stream border); Cao Bang 323.15 km (including 289.02 km of land border and 34.13 km of river or stream border); Lang Son 223 km (including 216.12 km of land border and 6.89 km of river or stream border); and Quang Ninh  111.27 km (including 26.60 km of land border and 82.67 km of river or stream border, excluding the border section from Bac Luan river estuary to Border Point 62).

This borderline has taken shape through thousands of years of history and existed fairly stably since Vietnam gained independence from northern feudal rulers. It has been acknowledged in geographical books compiled under various feudal dynasties, including “Nam Bac Phien Gioi Dia Do” (North-South border map), compiled in 1172 under King Ly Anh Tong; “Du Dia Chi” (Geography of the Country) written by Nguyen Trai in 1435 under King Le Thai Tong; the “Thien Ha Ban Do” (World Map) of 1490 under King Le Thanh Tong; and the “Dai Nam Nhat Thong Chi” (Book of Vietnam’s Great unity) in the Nguyen dynasty.

In Geographer Review No. 38 of October 29, 1964, the Intelligence and Research Agency of the US State Department wrote:

“In 939, after ten centuries under foreign domination, Annam broke from the Chinese yoke and created the Empire of Great Viet.… The new State success-fully defended its independence...  A land border like the present one could have been in existence ten centuries ago.”

However, the Vietnam-China border was characterized by the concept of a zone border, not by a clearly demarcated borderline.

The June 26, 1887 Convention and the June 20, 1895 Additional Convention between the French Government (on behalf of Vietnam) and the Qing dynasty of feudal China were the first international legal documents determining the border between Vietnam and China. Based on the historical borderline which has long existed between the two nations before the French invasion of Vietnam, these two Conventions manifested the gains of the Vietnamese people’s struggle for national construction and defense. As the border negotiations with the Qing dynasty were conducted in parallel with the negotiations on the France-Qing trade treaty, French concession of a number of areas such as Tu Long and Bach Long was unavoidable. However, the borderline jointly defined by the French and the Qing dynasty basically conformed to the borderline already formed through historical process, and was realized in the field by a system of 341 simple border markers from Mong Cai to the Laos-China border.

Yet, the border demarcation between the French and the Qing dynasty was carried out more than 100 years ago under incomplete technical and practical conditions and incomplet and unclear and inaccurate texts and maps of many border sections. The border markers were planted at the end of the 19th century, not determined by a coordinate grid, and many were damaged or lost through time or removed from their former locations. Meanwhile, many original maps no longer existed and migration of populations took place not in accordance with the de jure borderline. All these posed difficulties to border management. Hence, the accurate demarcation of the borderline for better management and avoidance of disputes affecting the bilateral relations has become an urgent requirement of both countries.

Legal principles

Usually, newly independent countries will, based on international law and practical solution of border disputes, apply three main principles to the demarcation of their borders: the principle of inheriting international treaties on territorial borders; the principle of uti possifentis (converting the colonial boundaries into international borderlines) and the principle of agreement to determine new border sections.

Yet, for Vietnam and China, gaining independence from different colonial powers, the uti possifentis principle was not taken into account.

Not long after Vietnam gained independence, the Secretariat of the Vietnam Labor Party (now the Communist Party of Vietnam) Central Committee on November 2, 1957, sent a letter to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, proposing that the two sides should respect the historical border established by the Sino-French Conventions of 1887 and 1895 and settle any outstanding disputes through peaceful negotiations. The letter emphasized: “The border question is an important issue that requires resolution on the basis of legal principles, existing or redefined, as decided by the two Governments.”

In April 1958, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party responded, accepting the Vietnamese proposal to respect the status quo of the historical border defined in the 1887 and 1895 Conventions. This was an important victory for the Vietnam-China friendship in light of the fact that the new China had declined to accept border treaties considered to be unfair which the feudal China had concluded with imperialist states. However, due to the anti-US war, the two countries had no conditions to qualitatively complete their common borderline. The first round of Vietnam-China border negotiations only began in Beijing on August 15, 1974, and the second negotiation round lasted from October 7, 1977, to June 1978. The third round resumed in Hanoi on April 18, 1979, in which the Vietnamese side put forth a three-point proposition clearly stating at Point 3: “The settlement of boundary and territorial issues between the two countries should follow the principle of respecting the status quo of the boundary created by history and delimitated by the 1887 and 1895 conventions concluded by the French administration and the Qing dynasty, and approved by the Vietnamese and Chinese sides.”

After the normalization of their relations, Vietnam and China began their boundary negotiations in October 1992. On October 19, 1993, the two governmental delegations signed an agreement on the basic principles for settlement of territorial and  border issues between Vietnam and China, which provided in the land border section: “The two sides agree to compare and redefined the entire Vietnam-China land borderline founded on the Convention on Border Delimitation concluded by China and France on June 26, 1887, and the Additional Convention on Border Delimitation on June 26, 1895, and other enclosed documents and delimitation and demarcation maps, confirmed or defined by the above-mentioned two Conventions, as well as founded on clearly demarcated markers.”

So, the first and main principle underlying the negotiations was the recognition of the legal validity of the two Conventions of 1887 and 1895. These Conventions have served as a basis for comparing and redefining the entire land borderline between the two countries.

During the negotiation process, the two sides exchanged maps showing the borderline defined unilaterally on the basis of interpretation of the Franco-Chinese Conventions. Through comparison, of the total length of about 1,350 km measured on the map agreed by the two sides for use in negotiations), a nearly dispute-free 900 km (accounting for 67% of the total length of the border line) was viewed the same by both sides, and some 450 km (33%) saw divergent opinions regarding 289 areas, including:

+ 74 areas A with differences arising from overlapping of drawn lines;

+ 51 areas B with differences arising from an absence of a line; and,

+ 164 areas C with differences of positions due to different interpretations of the conventions and disputes.

Areas A and B did not constitute a large area, only about 5 km2, while areas C occupied a vast area of about 227 km2.

The second principle underlying the negotiations was an equitable and reasonable approach. After making comparison, the two sides agreed that for areas clearly defined by the Sino-French Conventions, they would base themselves on the provisions of the Conventions to determine the direction of the border line. For areas managed or drawn by either side which traverse the borderline, in principle, they should be returned to the other side without any conditions. For areas unclearly defined by the Conventions, the two sides agreed to take into account the following elements: the legal basis of the Sino-French Conventions; historical management; topography; historical maps; and management convenience, in order to define the border line. If field surveys by experts of the two sides were required, friendly negotiations in the spirit of mutual understanding and compromise would be held to find equitable and reasonable solutions. For areas in which inhabitants of both sides have lived for a long time, their stable lives would be maintained; the river or stream border sections would be settled on the principle of international law and practices: the border lines on navigable river or stream sections would be defined by the middle of the main navigable channels; the borderlines on non-navigable river or stream sections would run along the middle of the main flows or currents. Areas with historical fortresses of either side would be settled on the basis of respecting the concerned parties’ rights to such fortresses.

The 1999 Vietnam-China Land Border Treaty acknowledged the fruitful settlement of 289 areas on which the two sides hold different views, under which around 114.9 km2 belong to Vietnam (including 112.3 km2 of areas C and 2.6 km2 of areas A and B), and some 117.2 km2 belong to China (including 114.8 km2 of areas C and 2.4 km2 of areas A and B). Of 164 areas C, excluding four river or stream areas (still left with broken lines by the two sides and not yet settled, namely 186C - Ban Gioc waterfall; 188C, 189C and 289 C - Tuc Lam bank), 46 areas ran along Vietnam’s projected lines, 44 areas ran along China’s projected lines, 18 areas were attached to Vietnam’s projected lines, 21 areas were attached to China’s projected lines and 31 areas laid between the two sides’ projected lines.

On December 30, 1999, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam, on behalf of the Vietnamese government, and Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Zatien, on behalf of the Chinese government, signed in Hanoi the Vietnam- China Land Border Treaty (the 1999 Treaty), laying a foundation for building a peaceful, stable and permanent borderline between the two countries. This is a fair outcome acceptable to both sides, which serves as an important legal basis for the two sides to conduct border demarcation and marker planting, whereby the textual borderline defined in the 1999 Treaty and its enclosed maps would be converted a borderline in the field clearly and accurately marked by a system of modern border markers.

The Treaty is considered the victory of the principle of sovereign equality between nations, meeting the aspirations of the peoples of both countries, above all border inhabitants, creating conditions for building a borderline of peace, friendship, stability and durability, ushering a new step of development in the relationship of comprehensive cooperation between Vietnam and China and affirming in reality the golden word-agreement on building Vietnam-China relations: “friendly neighborliness, comprehensive cooperation, long-term stability and a future-oriented vision.”

Marker planting

The border demarcation is, in essence, a uniform legal activity of defining a borderline in documents and maps. Yet, the main task in border demarcation and marker planting in the field is to convert the borderline already demarcated in legal documents and demarcation maps into the borderline in the field in the most accurate manner possible, marked by a system of national border markers, and to settle matters arising in the course of border demarcation and marker planting such as inhabitants, land and property related to the borderline already defined.

The demarcation was basically conducted on the negotiation table while the delimitation for marker planting was technical work with decisions only limited within the conversion of jobs already defined in legal documents and maps and the settlement of matters arising in the field.

However, border delimitation in the field constitutes an important stage, aiming to express the de facto borderline in order to preserve its “inviolability” and help maintain the status of the border. Such work requires much time and bilateral effort under such difficulties as:

(i) Contradiction between the letter maps of the Treaty and reality in the field. International practice shows that no document could detail the borderline and all elements related thereto. With the signing of the 1999 Treaty, the borderline was described in the text of the Treaty and drawn on the topographical map to a scale of 1:50,000. The accuracy and specifics of the maps greatly depended on the scale of the maps. That borderline was drawn by an ink line, which might vary by dozens or even hundreds of meters with the actual borderline in the field. The disparity between the letter of the Treaty and enclosed maps and the field reality led to disagreement on marker positions as well as direction of the borderline, creating areas in question and affecting completion of the demarcation. For example, both sides met with numerous difficulties in clarifying some terms in the Treaty such as “phia nam” (southern direction); “me” (edge, side), “xuong khe” (down the stream), etc. In these cases, the two sides had to settle via negotiations in the spirit of mutual understanding and concession.

(ii) Unlike other international borderlines, the Vietnam-China borderline is peculiarly characterized by mixed residence and mixed farming in border regions by the two countries’ border inhabitants through many generations. Moreover, border dwellers are bound together through ancestral ties and move across the border to visit relatives or earn a living frequently. Some areas managed by either side beyond the borderline defined by the Treaty into the other side’s areas had to be returned to the latter upon demarcation for marker planting. On such issues, the two sides exchanged ideas in the spirit of flexibility for settlement, avoiding the impacts of demarcation on the lives of border inhabitants. These issues had to be well settled so that people enjoyed a stable life, their new residence places were better than the old ones and their post-demarcation lives better than before.

(iii) The Vietnam-China land border demarcation and marker planting were conducted mainly in areas in which topographical conditions are very complicated, weather and climate harsh and infrastructure poor. For a number of areas, demarcation and marker planting teams had to walk for 3 to 4 days to reach their camps for bilateral work with their Chinese counterparts. Heavy markers (950 kg for a big marker; 500 kg for a medium marker and 300 kg for small markers) and building materials, water, food, machinery and equipment were manually transported to marker positions.

(iv) The border demarcation and marker planting equipment was inadequate and often broke down due to operation on difficult terrain and under harsh weather conditions. Moreover, unexploded bombs and mines from war time still existed in many areas and killed three officials and wounded 35 others within the eight years of border demarcation and marker planting.

So, the most fundamental principle for border demarcation and marker planting was to base on the text of the 1999 Treaty and enclosed maps for drawing the borderline in the field. However, for areas in which the Treaty’s text and maps were in disparity with the reality in the field, the two sides agreed to creatively apply the “package” principle, aiming to find general, fair and reasonable solutions acceptable to both sides. The main contents of this principle was that the settlement would be based on the balance of interests and acreage, the borderlines running through all former markers and historical vestiges, and the minimization of impacts on border inhabitants’ lives. The two sides divided the areas in dispute into many packages, each of which would be settled on certain principles. They frankly exchanged their views in order to reach a fair outcome, respecting the letters and spirit of the 1999 Treaty, particularly in areas sensitive to domestic and international opinion.

At Huu Nghi (Friendship) border gate, the borderline runs through Km 0, old French marker 19 and the point 148 m away from the railway junction point to the North, as strictly defined by the 1999 Treaty. At some other border-gates, the borderline runs through old markers erected during the Franco-Chinese time. At Chi Ma border-gate, the borderline runs through old marker No. 44; at Tan Thanh border-gate, it runs in a straight line via old marker No. 15 and in parallel with facilities already constructed by both sides; at Po Peo border gate, the borderline runs along a rock wall via old marker No. 72 and through some Chinese observation posts on mountain tops; at Tra Linh border-gate, it runs south of a Chinese road where China keeps the tree lines and Vietnam keeps almost all farm land, water resources and cemeteries. At Hoanh Mo border gate, the borderline runs in the middle of Hoanh Mo passage as practically managed in history. With regard to population areas in Ha Giang and Lang Son, on the basis of minimization of impacts on these areas, the two sides agreed to adjust the borderline on the basis of balancing the acreage and maintaining the population areas in status quo. Vietnam kept intact the entire hamlet of Ma Ly San in Ha Giang, comprising 13 households with 65 members, and China kept intact 13 houses bordering on Lang Son province. The anise forest planted near Quang Ninh province’s border by Chinese inhabitants was reserved for the Chinese side. For the graveyard areas of Vietnamese inhabitants (old markers 53-54), where the two sides held different views on the mountain foot line, the borderline was adjusted to keep almost the entire farm and graveyard land of Vietnamese inhabitants in this area.

Ban Gioc waterfall and Bac Luan river estuary were settled in one package as they are of the same nature. At Ban Gioc waterfall area, under the 1999 Treaty, international law and practices, the borderline ran along the median of the water flow south of Po Thoong dune and was adjusted by the two sides to run through Po Thoong dune and the vestige of the hydrographic station built during the 1960s, with one-fourth of the sandbank, half of the main waterfall and all subsidiary waterfalls belonging to Vietnam. The two sides also agreed not to build works in Ban Gioc waterfall area in order to protect the natural landscape and environment, and at the same time exchanged ideas on the signing of a governmental agreement on joint exploitation of natural resources and tourist potential of the waterfall area, with a  borderline that runs with three-fourths of Tuc Lam bank and one-third of Dau Got bank belonging to Vietnam while the rest belongs to China, and a free waterway navigation zone to be established for local use of the flows on both sides of Tuc Lam and Dau Got banks for passage, but not for fishing and aquaculture. This regulation, as agreed upon by both sides, will be clearly stated in the border demarcation and marker planting protocol and enclosed maps. The two sides also agreed not to build any works on Tuc Lam bank, Tai Xec islet, and Dau Got bank and will sign a governmental agreement detailing the management of these areas.


The completion of the Vietnam-China land border demarcation and marker planting constitutes an event of historic significance in the bilateral relationship. For the first time in history, the two countries have fixed a clear land borderline with a system of modern markers, thereby laying a firm foundation for building a borderline of peace, friendship, cooperation and development between the two countries and ushering in a new era in the history of the relationship.

Together with the Treaty on Delimitation of Territorial Waters, Exclusive Economic Zones and Continental Shelf in Tonkin Gulf and the Treaty on Fishery Cooperation in Tonkin Gulf, which were signed on December 25, 2000, the signing of the Treaty on Vietnam-China Land Border Demarcation and Marker Planting shows that the two Communist Parties and the two socialist states are fully capable of settling all differences by peaceful means and boosting the relationship of friendly and comprehensive cooperation between the two countries.

The completion of the Vietnam-China land border demarcation and marker planting creates a basis for functional bodies to efficiently manage the border and for people living in the border regions of two countries to easily recognize the borderline and jointly protect the border against illegal cross-border farming and residence due to a lack of understanding of the borderline, opening up new opportunities for each country’s development and especially creating conditions for border localities of both countries to expand their cooperation for economic development and friendly exchanges.

It is also a vivid manifestation of the Vietnam-China relationship of “comprehensive and strategic partnership and cooperation,” contributing to the increase of mutual trust and creating a motive force for stronger and firmer development of the Vietnam-China relationship.

In international and regional arenas, it constitutes a practical contribution to regional peace, stability and development and to the reaffirmation of general principles of international laws: settlement of border and territorial issues through peaceful negotiation, without resort to force or threat of force in the settlement of international disputes.-


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