The region is contested by Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand to name a few. The main aggressors in the area however are China who have become increasingly audacious and ambitious in the region since Xi Jinping became President in 2013. China and Vietnam are the nations to most recently come to blows over the waters, with Beijing sending ships to the Vanguard Bank within the Vietnamese economic exclusion zone. The motivation behind such congested competition is lucrative shipping lanes and military influence across the world.
This prize has caused conflicts in the past, but none quite as worrying and terrifying as China and Vietnam’s most violent skirmish – over the Johnson South Reef in 1988.
This happened when the 14th UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission urged China to build five observation posts, one of which would be based in the Spratly Islands 150km east of Johnson South Reef.
China believed this was an ideal location because they saw it as remote enough from other settlements.
However, their new observation post was actually close to Vietnamese settlements and within the Philippines’ economic exclusion zone.
As a result, Vietnamese ships moved into the area where multiple confrontations and tense standoffs would occur.
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From this point onwards, China and Vietnam have differing versions of events. China claimed that they detected Vietnamese troops landing on three reefs, one of which was the Johnson South Reef.
As both sides disputed the pitching of a Vietnamese flag there, China claimed that Vietnamese troops opened fire, and therefore Chinese ships reciprocated the onslaught sinking the ship occupying Johnson South Reef.
Vietnam’s account claimed that China sent four ships and three frigates into the area and provoked Vietnamese troops in a deliberate attempt to goad them into opening fire.
A small group of Vietnamese troops was sent to the reef to protect the flag planted there the previous day, when Chinese soldiers arrived and opened fire and eventually took the reef from largely unarmed Vietnamese soldiers.
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American professors Cheng Tun-jen and Tien Hung-mao offered independent accounts of the fighting and summarised the skirmish as follows: China started deploying troops to some of the unoccupied reefs of the Spratly Islands.
Soon after Vietnamese troops stormed the Johnson South Reef on March 14, 1988, a skirmish began with Chinese landing parties. Within a year, the People’s Liberation Army of China occupied and took over seven reefs and rocks in the Spratly Islands.
In total, 64 Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the conflict and nine more were held as Chinese prisoners until 1991.
The fighting in 1988 means that even today Beijing-Hanoi relations are tense, not helped by China’s occupation of the Vanguard Bank.
The area is now also contested by the US and allies Australia. Military exercises between the two countries are regular much to China’s dismay.
Xi Jinping has tried to influence Australia’s position however, with former Labor Party frontbencher Sam Dastyari being forced into an embarrassing resignation in 2018 after he accepted Chinese bribes to adopt a pro-China stance on the issue.