In 1933, the French flexed their colonial muscles and annexed nine of the Spratly Islands. When the news spread, the fledgling and troubled Chinese republic faced a basic problem: It didn’t know where the Spratlys were.
A year earlier, the French had staked their claim to the Paracel Islands as part of their colony in Vietnam. The second French claim to part of the Spratlys befuddled the Chinese. As the scholar Francois-Xavier Bonnet of Irasec, the Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia, noted:
“These two claims of the French government confused the minds … not only of the Chinese public and the media, but also the official authorities like the military and the politicians in Guangdong Province and Beijing. In fact, the Chinese believed that the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands or Xisha were exactly the same group, but that the French had just changed the name as a trick to confuse the Chinese government. To ascertain the position of the Spratly Islands, the Chinese Consul in Manila, Mr. Kwong, went, on July 26, 1933, to the US Coast and Geodetic Survey and discovered, with surprise, that the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands were different and far apart.”