Breaking with the past, Vietnam celebrates the anniversary of the battle in the South China Sea — Radio Free Asia


In an unusually bold move, the Vietnamese government commemorated the 34and anniversary of a battle against China’s navy in the South China Sea with a ceremony led by the prime minister and a front-page op-ed Monday in the ruling party’s mouthpiece.

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh paid an unprecedented visit to Johnson South Reef Battle Memorial in the south-central province of Khanh Hoa province over the weekend. He paid tribute to the 64 Vietnamese soldiers who were killed in the March 14, 1988 incident. Chinh was the first senior Vietnamese leader to lead such a commemoration of fallen soldiers.

Johnson South, or Gac Ma in Vietnamese, is a reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. In mid-March 1988, the Vietnamese Navy sent two transport ships and a landing ship to attempt to claim some of the disputed Union Banks reefs, including Johnson South.

As Vietnamese soldiers moved building materials onto the reef and hoisted a flag, they came under fire from Chinese troops. According to China, the Vietnamese opened fire first.

In just a few hours, 64 mostly unarmed Vietnamese soldiers were killed and nine were captured, the biggest loss suffered by the Vietnamese army at sea since the end of the Vietnam War. Johnson South Reef has since been under Chinese control.

For a long time the battle was not mentioned in public, and so far it is still not included in the school curriculum. When mentioned by Vietnamese state-controlled media, they tend to omit the word “China” and replace it with “foreign forces”. Vietnam’s leadership apparently wanted to avoid offending China and to avoid the public dwelling on command errors that could have led to defeat.

However, netizens and activists have asked on internet forums why the soldiers were unarmed and why were they not allowed to return fire.

A screenshot of the front page of the Nhan Dan daily from March 14, 2022. The main article at the bottom of the page is an editorial with the title: “Eternal Glory to the Defenders of the Sea”. Credit: Nhan Dan.

Front Page News

Things have changed this year.

The Nhan Dan daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, published three articles on the battle of Johnson South Reef and the Spratleys on the front page on Monday.

The lead article, titled “Eternal Glory to the Defenders of the Sea”, condemned the Chinese navy for being “a blatant force, ignorant of justice and reason”, and said their military action was completely unprovoked.

Another report covered an “incense offering ceremony to commemorate the martyrs of the 34and anniversary of the battle of Gac Ma” in Danang.

The lead article reported on Prime Minister Chinh’s visit to Khanh Hoa Province, the administrative seat of Vietnam’s Spratly Islands.

Chinh reportedly ordered the local government to develop the Spratlys into “an economic, cultural and social hub” in the South China Sea.

“It’s a clear message of maritime sovereignty and autonomy,” said a Vietnamese analyst who does not want to be named because he is not authorized to speak to foreign media.

Another prominent political analyst and blogger, Huy Duc, wrote on his Facebook page: “This [the prime minister’s order] is a strategic step towards building our “political fortress” to defend Vietnam’s sovereignty at sea and our islands.

“No country can choose its neighbors, but a dignified nation would never be imprisoned by geography,” Duc said.

Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, DC, said the Vietnamese government is “trying to show its resolve, especially as the world is concerned about the war in Ukraine.”

“I think you also have to look at this in the context of the war in Ukraine,” Abuza said.

According to him, the Vietnamese government has been “openly pro-Russian and abstained in the UN vote against Moscow because of their long historical relationship and the fact that it is one of the biggest consumers of Russian weapons”.

“And yet the [Ukrainian] the war should make the Vietnamese very nervous,” Abuza warned.

“(President Vladimir) Putin’s justifications for launching an offensive war on the fragile basis of having once controlled this territory and this historical affinity set a very dangerous precedent for Chinese aggression in Southeast Asia, in general, and in Vietnam, in particular,” he said.

China claims sovereignty over all of the Spratly Islands, where Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have claims.


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