Spratly Islands dispute defines China-Vietnam relations 25 years after naval clash

25 years after China's naval clash with Vietnam at Johnson Reef, a second military battle is seen as unlikely - but Beijing's ambitions are growing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 March, 2013, 6:05am


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The 25th anniversary this past week of the naval clash between China and Vietnam in the Spratly Islands is not merely cause to reflect on history; it speaks to one of the more disturbing contingencies in the South China Sea now exercising minds in the region.

The 1988 clash at Johnson Reef saw Chinese naval frigates sink two Vietnamese ships, leaving 64 sailors dead - some shot while standing on a reef - and remains a point of friction between the two nations. But its broader significance lies in the strategic nature of the operation.

The battle's aftermath saw China take and secure its first six holdings in the Spratlys - fortifications that remain important today, with one at Fiery Cross reef housing an early warning radar. Fourteen years earlier the PLA navy had routed the South Vietnamese navy to complete its occupation of the Paracels to the north - islands being built up into a formidable military base.

At some point, some analysts note, China might want to secure the rest of the Spratlys as its maritime power grows - a reflection of Beijing's sovereign claims to the South China Sea as well as the strategic value of the archipelago, which straddles some of the world's most important sea lanes and sits atop rich oil and gas reserves and fish stocks. That remains a source of constant worry for military planners in Hanoi.

Privately, PLA officials and Chinese scholars talk frankly of potential friction over Vietnam's 25 fortified holdings in the Spratlys - far more than any other claimant and running loosely in a band from the southwest to the northeast. Many were built in a frenzy of Vietnamese activity in the months after the clash.

It is not just a question of Chinese sovereignty, they say; the holdings might one day be used to contain China, as Vietnam's own naval development continues and its ties with the US and its allies deepen.

"The Vietnamese must know that we will never allow them to even attempt to contain us through those bases," one PLA strategist said.

Gary Li, a senior analyst with IHS Fairplay in London, said the situation in the South China Sea was now vastly different to that of 1988. Beijing's strategists realise that international attention on the area - and increasing Vietnamese naval capabilities that have made its coastline a "shooting gallery" - mean that using force to grab reefs and atolls is no longer a sound strategy.

Instead, China is building up its unchallenged hold on the Paracels while asserting sovereignty over the Spratlys through an intensified presence at sea with both naval and paramilitary fleets of vessels.

"Compared with the time when the physical occupation of the islands meant everything, China has had to shift its strategy to one of dominance of the maritime domain. So long as Vietnam doesn't base cruise missile batteries and extensive radars on its holdings, or work too closely with the US, for example, China knows it can keep to this strategy," Li said.

"They will be able dominate the area irrespective of actual islands and it will also allow them to protect any enhanced efforts to explore for oil in the coming years as well."

For a sense of the frictions over the incident, look at YouTube footage and comments that include extreme nationalistic rants and sexually violent taunts.

While Vietnam's state press played down the recent anniversary of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war - amid pressure from Beijing - several pieces last week highlighted the efforts of the navy's young "martyrs".

"The history of their blood has permeated every grain of sand," one commentator wrote, the language a reminder of the intensity of Vietnamese claims.

A protest in downtown Hanoi was not covered by state media, however, while the Chinese state press ignored the anniversary. Chinese microbloggers touted the success of the venture, saying it must not be forgotten. One compared it to a possible future confrontation with Japan over the disputed Diaoyu islands.

"Should there be a war between China and Japan, it should be confined to the sea only, just like the war between China and Vietnam. China can defeat Japan just like it did to Vietnam."

Additional reporting by Teddy Ng