China’s aggressive activities in the Johnson South Reef violate Vietnam’s sovereignty

SCSC - Spratly archipelago of Vietnam has an important strategic location in the world’s busiest maritime route in the South China Sea, which is considered the “pharynx” connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Indian Ocean.

International strategists say anyone who controls the Spratly can dominate the South China Sea. That’s why, Beijing authorities have attempted and sought ways to occupy the islands.

In January 1988, when the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe fell into a serious political crisis and while Vietnam was facing many difficulties and was sharing its resources to help Cambodia escape from the Pol Pot genocidal crime, China mobilized its naval forces including many destroyers and missile vessels from Hainan southwards, four of which moved to the Northwest of the Spratly to provoke Vietnamese forces. By March 1988, the number of ships operating in the region was up to 9-12.

On March 4, 1988, being aware that China was likely to occupy more reefs in the Spratly, of which Johnson South Reef held a key position, the Vietnamese navy ordered the ships HQ604, HQ505 and HQ605 to guard in Johnson South Reef, Collins Reef and Landsdowne Reef, willing to die for Vietnam’s sovereignty over the sea and island. On March 12-14, 1988, the skirmish was fierce.

In Johnson South Reef, China mobilized guard ships armed with 100-mm artilleries to perforate and sink the Vietnamese navy's ships. Captain Vu Phi Tru, Deputy Commander of the Brigade 146 Tran Duc Thong and many Vietnamese naval soldiers bravely sacrificed their lives and the HQ604 ship was sunk.

In Collins Reef, the HQ505 ship flagged the reef and was attacked by two Chinese guard ships. Despite of the danger, the HQ505 tried to rise up and caught fire. Soldiers on board the HQ505 extinguished the fire and at the same time, saved their comrades on board the HQ604 which was drowned by China. They finally succeeded in defending the sovereignty over Collins Reef.

Commanded by Captain Le Lenh Son, the HQ605 ship ran from East London Reef to Landsdowne Reef to place the flag affirming Vietnam’s sovereignty and the determination to defend the reef. Chinese guard ships immediately besieged and sank the HQ605 ship. The soldiers on the ship had to swim to Sincowe Reef.

Image: Internet.

In the battle of March 14, 1988, despite of the great differences in the forces, Vietnamese naval soldiers were courageous and determined to defend national sea and island sovereignty. 3 soldiers laid down their lives. 11 were wounded, 70 were missing (China later returned 9 soldiers, and 61 were still missing), 3 ships HQ604, HQ505 and HQ605 were fired by Chinese warships and sank. Although failing to defend Johnson South Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef, Cuarteron Reef, the Vietnamese navy blocked China’s attacks to advance to other features. The Vietnamese navy has maintained and effectively managed 21 islands and 33 military posts until today.

The lesson learned from the Johnson South Reef skirmish shows that Vietnam needs to stay on high vigilance. China's ambition to monopolize the South China Sea is unchanged, but its methods and practices have become more sophisticated. At present, China is not using force to occupy but strengthening the illegal construction of military facilities on Johnson South Reef and features that it has occupied in the skirmish of 1988 which have caused serious consequences to peace, security and stability in the region.

In Johnson South Reef, China has reclaimed more than 109,000 m2 and built docks, radars, military facilities, and air defense systems. In other features in the Spratly, especially the Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef, China has built runways long enough for China’s largest fighters to land, quays that are large enough for China’s large-scale destroyers, and hangars, which can house large Chinese bombers. The construction area in Mischief Reef is equivalent to the US District of Columbia, while the deep water port of Subi is equivalent to the Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

In December 2016, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the US Center for Strategic and International Studies released a satellite imagery showing that China had built the structure for surface-to-air missile systems like HQ-9 which can penetrate the US Patriot defense system. China’s action went against Xi Jinping’s 2015 pledge to US President Obama that China’s construction activities in the Spratly would not affect any country and that China would not militarize the Spratly.

Moreover, China’s military operations are not restricted to artificial islands. China's navy has expanded its activities to the Southern part of the South China Sea. It has even held drills and vowed to defend its sovereignty over Malaysia's James shoal in 2014. At the same time, the Chinese navy increased its investment in equipment modernization. China’s new Type-052D destroyer is as strong as the US’s DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. China’s new Type-054A frigare is more powerful than any American patrol ships. China has also built new multi-target submarines and new carriers to serve its off-shore activities. Meanwhile, the Chinese Air Force is building its fifth-generation J-20 and J-31 steath fighters with long-range anti-ship and land-attack missiles. Dr. Dean Cheng of the US’s Heritage Foundation said all of China's military modernization activities do not only serve its ambition in the South China Sea but also aim to shift the focus of China’s military strategy from “near-shore” operations in 1960s to “near-sea” in 1990s and now “far-sea” operations. The appearance and frequency of regular operations of Chinese warships and military equipment in the Spratly and the south of the South China Sea pose the risks of military clashes threatening security of other countries in the South China Sea in particular and peace and security in the region in general.

In short, the Johnson South Reef skirmish proves to the world that China's ambition to monopolize the South China Sea is reflected in the Spratly. Vietnamese naval soldiers combated bravely blocking China’s military advance in expanding its occupation in the Spratly. Moreover, China has also stepped up the reclamation and construction of the features it has occupied since the Johnson South Reef skirmish to turn them into solid military outposts in order to promote its strength in the South of the South China Sea.

However, all of China’s activities, including the occupation in 1988, the reclamation and construction are unlawful because they are not implemented in China's territory but in Vietnam’s land. China is not entitled to have sovereignty over the Johnson South Reef and the features it is occupying in the Spratly. It is Vietnam who has sufficient historical evidence of sovereignty over the Johnson South Reef and the whole Spratly.

Quoc Anh