Why China invaded Vietnam’s Gac Ma Reef in 1988
1988 is considered the peak year of Vietnam's difficulties when the economic crisis in the country worsened and Vietnam’s main supporter, the Soviet Union, was in a difficult situation.
On Gac Ma (Johnson South Reef), with an area of approximately 7.2 km2, in early 2014 China built a small concrete platform with some small facilities. So far, the concrete platform has covered an area of 10,000 m2. This country also built many works on the reef, such as a cement factory, military facilities, a helipad, a wharf and breakwater dike.
In early 1988, China illegally occupied the reefs of Chu Thap (Fiery Cross), Chau Vien (Cuarteron Reef), Gaven, Subi, and Huy go (Hughes) in Vietnam’s Truong Sa archipelago (Spralty Islands), in the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea). This country also increased the number of war ships from 9 to 12 in the Spratlys.
At Tien Nu (Tennent Reef), Da Lat (Ladd Reef), Da Lon (Discovery Great Reef), Da Dong (East Reef) and Toc Tan (Alisn Reef), Vietnam naval forces built the defensive line to initially stop the illegal expansion of the Chinese troops on the neighboring islands, which belong to Vietnam.
In 1988-1990, Vietnamese conducted the campaign to defend the country’s sovereignty in the sea and on islands. Vietnam was determined to defend the country’s sovereignty on the Gac Ma (Johnson South Reef), Co Lin (Collins Reef) and Len Dao (Lansdowne Reef), which are very important for protecting the sovereignty in the Spratly Islands.
In early March 1988, three transport ships HQ 604, HQ 605, and HQ 505 were ordered to take soldiers to the Spratly Islands to build some works on the Johnson South Reef. In the morning of March 14, 1988, when the Vietnamese soldiers were carrying construction materials to Johnson South Reef, Chinese warships appeared. Chinese soldiers shot Vietnamese soldiers. 64 Vietnamese naval soldiers died, nine others were taken prisoners.
The HQ 604 ships was shot and sunk near the Johnson South Reef while the HQ 605 ship sunk near the Lansdowne Reef. The HQ 505 ship was shot at the tail. It ran at full speed to the beach of Collins Reef, becoming a landmark in protecting the sovereignty of Vietnam on Collins Reef. Vietnam kept the Collins Reef and Lansdowne Reef while Johnson South Reef was illegally occupied by China since then.
Systematic plot, choosing the right to implement it
Dr. Nguyen Manh Ha, Director of the Institute of Communist Party of Vietnam’s History, called the day March 14, 1988 Party "another tragic event in bilateral ties between Vietnam - China", after the tragic events when the Chinese launched the aggressive border war on February 17, 1979.
In the border conflict lasting nearly 10 years, Vietnam incurred significant human and material losses. 1988 was considered the peak year of Vietnam's difficulties when the economic crisis in the country worsened while its main supporter – the Soviet Union – was also in a difficult situation and reform.
China, by "some ways", knew that if they take military action in the Spratly Islands, the Soviet Union will not intervene. China invaded the Johnson South Reef of Vietnam, killing 64 Vietnamese soldiers and shot down three ships of Vietnam.
Mr. Ha said this event had two confrontations. The first confrontation was between one side which deliberately used force to conquer those who want to protect peace and their territory. The other confrontation was between one side with guns and the other side with convincing words. The result was the sacrifice of 64 soldiers.
"At that time, our equipment was backwards and in shortages. Our soldier only thought simply that the islands belong to our country so they had to guard and defend them. However, China’s plot and ambition are broader. Frankly, at that time we were not aware of their systematic plots," Ha said.
He said whenever it took a move in the East Sea, China always chose the appropriate moment, based on the international context and the perspective of the major countries on the East Sea issue. China’s plot to monopolize the East Sea was designed a long time ago and this country has implemented this plot systematically, step by step.
Since 1909, China began to send missions from Guangdong to explore some islands in the Hoang Sa Archipelago (Paracels Islands) of Vietnam. From that moment the Chinese have taken activities to spy the Paracels Islands and then the Spratlys Islands of Vietnam.
In 1956, France had to withdraw from Vietnam after the signing of the Geneva Agreement in July 1954. China took advantage of the gap of defence in the East Sea during this time to occupy some islands and reefs in Vietnam’s Paracels Islands.
In 1974, China again chose the right moment to take action, triggering the Paracel naval battle on January 19, 1974 after the US turned "the green light". This event was closely related to the visit to Beijing by US President Nixon in 1972.
"Without the handshake between Mao Zedong and Nixon, China would have not dared to occupy the Paracel Islands, which was controlled by the southern government. America was behind the southern region but why they did not support the southern government? It is because the US-China interests at that time was much bigger than the “southern government” card," Ha said
Why did China choose the Johnson South Reef?
According to Prof. Nguyen Dang Hung (University of Liège, Belgium), China chose the Johnson South Reef because it wanted a fortress in the center of the East Sea, from which it can gradually occupy other islands and reefs.
Johnson South Reef is almost in the middle of Vietnam and the Philippines. With that position, it is difficult for Vietnam to protect because the island is far from the coast. Also, at that time Vietnam had no modern ships.
Dang Cong Ngu, former Chairman of the Hoang Sa island district of Da Nang city, said China’s invasion of Johnson South Reef is a concrete step to realize China’s U-shaped line ambition in the East Sea.
Johnson South Reef is located in the west of the Spratly Islands and is one of the essential reefs. Occupying Johnson South Reef, China can manage the western waters.
Prof. Nguyen Dang Hung and Dang Cong Ngu said that it is a big regret that many people do not know about the Johnson South Reef event. They said Vietnamese people must know how China occupied Johnson South Reef and killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers.
In 2015 China urgently renovated seven reefs in the Spratly Islands of Vietnam, which were illegally occupied, including Johnson South Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Vanh Khanh (Mischief Reef), Tu Nghia (Hughes Reef), Chau Vien (Cuarteron Reef), Subi, and Gaven. China has constantly expanded these reefs and built harbors and airstrips on these reefs.
On Johnson South Reef, with an area of approximately 7.2 km2, in early 2014 China built a small concrete platform with some small facilities. So far, the concrete platform has covered an area of 10,000 m2. This country also built many works on the reef, such as a cement factory, military facilities, a helipad, a wharf and breakwater dike.