Vietnam’s rare commemoration of deadly battle in the South China Sea is a quiet but direct message to Beijing

  • In March, the Vietnamese government commemorated the deadly 1988 clash with China in the South China Sea.
  • This ceremony was a rare event, as Hanoi has long avoided public discussion of battles with its larger neighbors.
  • This year’s event, held amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, was seen as a quiet message to China.

In March, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh pay tribute Dozens of Vietnamese sailors and marines Battle with the Chinese Navy 1988 at Johnson South Reef

to Consciousness At a battle memorial in Khanh Hoa province, Chinh placed wreaths, burned incense, and wrote tributes to those who died in battle. The event was accompanied by an editorial on the front page of Nhân Dân, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Vietnam.

The action may seem trivial, but in reality it was unprecedented.

Vietnam has long avoided discussing or commemorating the battle officially, a disastrous defeat and still a source of anti-Chinese sentiment. Over the past few years, civic groups Commemorative events and demonstrations were held to commemorate the war. suppression by Vietnamese authorities

The official silence stems primarily from a desire to prevent escalation of anti-Chinese sentiment and avoid hostility to Vietnam’s largest trading partner, Beijing.

But this year’s high-profile commemoration, along with Vietnam’s recent South China Sea actions and plans for its own military investment, could be Hanoi’s message to its larger and more armed neighbors.

Complex history and long debates

Dwarf Islands South China Sea Chinese Outpost

A Chinese outpost on the disputed Dwarf Islands in 1988.

Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Johnson South Reef is part of the Spratly Archipelago, a group of more than 100 islands, rocks, reefs and other features in the South China Sea about 500 miles west of Vietnam’s southern coast.

With a total area of ​​approximately 7.2 square kilometers, Johnson South Reef has several stretches that naturally float on the water for hours a day at low tide. Johnson South Reef and several other features make up the area known as the Union Banks that form the southwestern part of the Spratly Islands.

The Dwarf Islands, like other islands in the South China Sea, have long been the subject of serious territorial disputes.

Beijing has made all-out claims about the region, which has been challenged by its neighbors, many of which have their own. not international tribunal The Chinese government also ruled that China’s claims of rights within the so-called “Gudan Line” had no legal basis.

Anti-China protests in Hanoi, Vietnam


Protesters take part in an anti-Chinese protest in downtown Hanoi on June 2, 2013.

HOANG DINH NAM/AFP via Getty Images

The history of China and Vietnam makes the South China Sea conflict unique. China, the same one-party communist country, was Vietnam’s biggest supporter when fighting France, South Vietnam, and the United States.

1974 China attack and seize The entire Paracel Islands in South Vietnam several days of battle About 100 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed or injured, one corvette was sunk and three frigates were damaged.

Despite being at war with South Korea, Hanoi protested Beijing’s action because it has its own claims against Paracel, but ultimately did nothing as it faced more pressing issues on the mainland.

After Hanoi defeated South Vietnam in 1975, Sino-Vietnam relations did not improve much. In 1979, the two countries waged a fierce border war that lasted less than a month, but until 1991 the region suffered heavy casualties and intermittent clashes.

johnson south reef

Johnson South Reef Union Banks Spratly Islands South China Sea


A bird’s eye view of Chinese development on Johnson South Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in 2015.

Photo by History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Tensions between China and Vietnam have escalated in the South China Sea since the 1979 war.

By the late 1980s, China began to assert more aggressive claims to the dwarf archipelago, and in 1988 began deploying military and maritime militia on some islands, such as Fiery Cross Reef.

Vietnam protested violently and began deploying its own, many of them on the islands and reefs of Union Banks.

Between March 11 and March 13, 1988, two armed Vietnam People’s Navy transports and an amphibious vessel were dispatched along with 100 soldiers and building materials to establish outposts at Johnson South Reef, Collins Reef and Lansdown Reef. has been

Chinese forces were deployed near Hughes Reef under their control. By March 14, three Chinese frigates were monitoring Vietnam.

Johnson South Reef Union Banks Spratly Islands South China Sea


The Johnson South Reef pictured on May 25, 2018 is southwest of Union Banks in the Spratly Islands.

DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

It is unclear how the battle took place on the morning of March 14.

Vietnamese claim that an amphibious force platoon with multiple flags on the then flooded Johnson South Reef confronted Chinese forces demanding its evacuation. After unsuccessful attempts to eliminate them, the Chinese frigates opened fire with 37 mm anti-aircraft guns and 100 mm guns.

The Chinese claim the Vietnamese fired at them first on the reef and on one of the transports.

Regardless of how it started, the battle was a complete defeat for the Vietnamese. Unable to hide or move on the submerged reef, 62 Vietnamese sailors and naval infantrymen were cut down in minutes. Chinese frigates later


They sank a transport and killed two more Vietnamese sailors.

The Vietnamese amphibious ship was damaged and the crew landed at Collins Reef, where it was destroyed. By the end of the day, 64 Vietnamese had been killed, nine were taken prisoner, three ships were sunk or destroyed, and Johnson South Reef was under Chinese control.

Prepare for the future

Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) naval soldiers patrol near a sign on the Nansha Islands, also known as Nansha Islands, in China on February 9, 2016.  REUTERS/Stringers


Chinese soldiers patrol the Spratly Islands on February 9, 2016.

thomson Reuters

Vietnam Official Commemoration of the Battle of the Johnson South Reef of the Year seemed to Claims to sovereignty and a reminder of how Hanoi has resisted its larger neighbors in the past – a message needed by Russia’s attacks on Ukraine.

In the years following the battle, China has worked to reclaim the reefs and islands it controls in the South China Sea. to a small fortress. China expanded its existing terrain through reclamation and built artificial islands to deploy weapons and troops.

Today is Johnson South Reef have It is a 27-acre man-made island with a harbor, helicopter landing pad, radar base, and melee weapons systems for anti-aircraft and missile defense.

Vietnam Navy Kilo-class submarine


Vietnam’s first kilo-class submarine Hanoi in the Gulf of Cam Rinh on January 3, 2014.

Vietnam News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

Vietnam is still claiming all the Spratlys. to strengthen the defense On the islands still under their control.

So did Hanoi. military modernizationincluding acheive 6 Kilo-class submarines Kalibr ground attack cruise missile from Russia.

Vietnam has also improved relations with its neighbors in recent years, perhaps aimed at countering China. Hanoi joins naval training India And japan, hosting australian naval ships, relationship improvement With America, the old enemy.

China and Vietnam have close economic ties, but tensions never truly faded. As Beijing continues to strengthen its military force and expand its influence, Vietnam is working to protect its interests and avoid a repeat of the 1988 events.

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