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Vietnam: 27th Anniversary of China’s Seizure of Johnson Reef (Đá Gạc Ma) By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0062/ 2015

We are preparing a report of the significance of the March 1988 battle between China and Vietnam at Johnson Reef (Đá Gạc Ma) in the Spratlys? We request your assessment of the following issues: Q1. How has the international community perceived viewed the battle, 27 years later? Has there been any change in the international perception on this matter since? If, so why? If not, why not?

ANSWER: Regarding the March 14, 1988 naval engagement between China and Vietnam in the waters around Gac Ma or Johnson South Reef, there is a Chinese video of this incident on YouTube. Two years ago this video was shown as part of a preliminary multi-media introduction to a conference on the South China Sea hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Later in the day after my presentation I responded to questioning by Chinese participants by pointing to the wall where the multimedia introduction has been shown. I stated that the Chinese video showed only what could called the murder of Vietnamese naval personnel. Vietnamese soldiers exposed on a reef covered in water were mowed down by Chinese gun fire.

Q2. . How has the international community perceived viewed the battle, 27 years later? Has there been any change in the international perception on this matter since? If, so why? If not, why not?

ANSWER: When the March 1988 naval engagement occurred the international community offered no support for Vietnam. Vietnam was still engaged in Kampuchea and in western states the general feeling was that “Vietnam got what it deserved.” The acquiescence by the international community to Chinese aggression was short sighted because it led China immediately to commence the process of annexing rocks, reefs and low tide elevations in the Spratly islands and claiming “sovereignty” over them. This process has continued to the present day, accompanied by Chinese land reclamation. It is my assessment that the international community will be silent on the twenty-seventh anniversary of China’s aggression. Why? Because most states do not want to provoke China’s ire over an issue that has passed into history that they feel is not in their vital national interests to raise.

Q3. What is the importance, if any, of remembering this battle these days in Vietnam, particularly in the context of China speeding up land reclamation in the Spratlys?

ANSWER: On March 8, at a press conference, China’s Foreign Minster stated in response to criticism of China’s land reclamation activities, “We are not like some countries, who engage in illegal construction in another person’s house. And we do not accept criticism from others when we are merely building facilities in our own yard.” The significance of the events of March 1988 is that China seized reefs and rocks by force and has claimed sovereignty over them. Acquisition of territory by force is illegal under international law. This demonstrates that China will ignore international law in pursuit of its strategic objectives. It also demonstrates that if aggression is not challenged when if first occurs, the agressive state will continue to use force and coercion to pursure its objectives. We need to recall that there was no Chinese presence in the Spratly Island archipelago at that time. China actions in attacking and massacring 64 Vietnamese sailors was an outright act of aggression that has gone unpunished by the international community. Chinese warships were dispatched with a flotilla whose mission ostensibly was to establish an observation post on behalf of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. This clear demonstrates that China used the scientific expedition as a pretext for its aggression. The commander of the Chinese flotilla reportedly was reprimanded later for his unauthorized use of force. Nevertheless, China has claimed ownership over features that it seized by force, even though this is a violation of international law. China is in fact occupying “another person’s home.” This is an example of China’s use of information warfare to distort both historical truth and international law. This is the first time China has called the features in the South China Sea as its “house.” This wording means that China has escalated the emotive justification for its actions from “historic rights” over islands and their “adjacent waters” to claiming outright possession of South China Sea features that it took from Vietnam. The Chinese Foreign Minister’s comments are aimed at isolating the Philippines and Vietnam and cowing other ASEAN members into submission. China expects ASEAN’s “nervous nellies” to counsel restraint and continue with endless consultations. Time is on China’s side with each scoop of sand taken from the sea enlarging the area of its artificial islands and extending China’s ability to exercise control – and coercion – if necessary. China is changing the “facts on the ground” thus rendering any decision by the Arbitral Tribunal on the Philippines’ claim irrelevant.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email:

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