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Breaking from the past, Vietnam marks South China Sea battle anniversary

Breaking from the past, Vietnam marks South China Sea battle anniversaryVietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh pays tribute at the Johnson South Reef Battle Memorial, March 12, 2022.

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

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh made an unprecedented visit to the Memorial for the Johnson South Reef Battle in the south-central province of Khanh Hoa province at the weekend. He paid tribute to the 64 Vietnamese soldiers who were killed in the incident on March 14, 1988. Chinh was the first top Vietnamese leader to lead such a commemoration of the 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 try to claim some of the reefs in the disputed Union Banks, including Johnson South.

While the Vietnamese soldiers were moving construction material onto the reef and putting up a flag, they came under fire from the Chinese troops. According to China, the Vietnamese opened fire first.

In just a couple of hours, 64 mostly unarmed Vietnamese soldiers were killed and nine were captured, the largest loss suffered by the Vietnamese military at sea since the end of the Vietnam War. Johnson South Reef has been under China’s control since.

For a long time, the battle was not talked about in public and up to now, 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.” Vietnamese leaders have seemingly wanted to avoid offending China, and for the public not to dwell on the command mistakes that might have led to the defeat.

Netizens and activists, however, have been asking on internet forums why the soldiers were not armed and why were they not allowed to fight back.

Breaking from the past, Vietnam marks South China Sea battle anniversary
A screenshot of Nhan Dan daily’s frontpage on March 14, 2022. The main article at the foot of the page is an editorial with the headline: “Eternal glory to the sea defenders.” Credit: Nhan Dan.

Front page news

Things have changed this year.

Nhan Dan daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, on Monday ran three articles on the Johnson South Reef battle and the Spratlys on its front page.

The main article, titled “Eternal glory to the sea defenders,” condemned the Chinese navy for being “a blatant force, ignorant of justice and reason,” and said their military action was totally unprovoked.

Another report covered an “incense-offering ceremony to commemorate the martyrs on the 34th anniversary of the Gac Ma Battle” in Danang.

The top article reported on Prime Minister Chinh’s visit to Khanh Hoa province, the administrative headquarters of Vietnam’s Spratly islands.

Chinh was quoted as ordering the local government to develop the Spratlys into “an economic, cultural and social center” in the South China Sea.

“This is a clear message of maritime sovereignty and self-reliance,” said a Vietnamese analyst who doesn’t want to be named as he is not authorized to speak to foreign media.

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

“No country can pick 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, D.C., said that the Vietnamese government is “trying to signal resolve, especially as the world is pre-occupied with the war in Ukraine.”

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

In his opinion, the Vietnamese government has been “overtly pro-Russia and abstained on the against Moscow due to their long historical relations and the fact that they are one of the largest consumers of Russian weaponry.”

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

“(President Vladimir) Putin‘s justifications to launch an offensive war on the flimsy basis of having once controlled that territory and historical affinity sets a very dangerous precedent for Chinese aggression in Southeast Asia, in general, and 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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