Johnson South Reef Skirmish

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The Johnson South Reef Skirmish of 1988 (Chinese: 赤瓜礁海战; pinyin: Chìguā jiāo hǎizhàn; Vietnamese: Hải chiến Trường Sa?) was a naval battle that took place between Chinese and Vietnamese forces over Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands on 14 March 1988.


During the 14th UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), it was agreed upon that China would establish five observation posts, including one at the Spratly Islands, for worldwide ocean survey.[1] In March 1987, the UNESCO IOC commissioned China to build the observation post at the Spratly Islands.[1] In April 1987, after numerous surveys and patrols, China chose the Fiery Cross Reef as the ideal location for the observation post because the unoccupied reef was remote from other claims and it was large enough for the observation post.[1] Between January and February, Vietnamese forces began establishing a presence at surrounding reefs to monitor the Chinese activity.[1] That led to a series of confrontations as the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) began defending its position.[1]


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China's account

On March 13, the frigate Nanchong detected PAVN Vietnamese transport HQ-604 heading toward Johnson South Reef, transport HQ-605 heading toward Lansdowne Reef, and landing craft HQ-505 heading toward Collins Reef in a simultaneous three-pronged intrusion upon the disputed reefs.[2]

At approximately 07:30 on Johnson South Reef, Vietnamese troops attempted to erect the Vietnam flag on the reef. It was reported that PAVN Corporal Nguyen Van Lanh and PAVN Sub Lieutenant Tran Van Phuong argued over the flag raising with PLA-N sailor Du Xianghou, which led to a pitched battle between the opposing forces on the reef. In response, Vietnamese forces, with naval transport HQ-604 in support, opened fire.[2] PLA-N forces and the frigate Nanchong counter-attacked at 08:47 hours. Transport HQ-604 was set ablaze and sunk.[2]

At 09:15 hours, the frigate Xiangtan arrived at Lansdowne reef and found that 9 Vietnamese marines from transport HQ-605 had already landed. The frigate Xiangtan immediately hailed the Vietnamese and demanded they withdraw from the reef. Instead, the Vietnamese opened fire .[2] The HQ-605 was damaged heavily and finally sunk by the Chinese.[2]

Vietnam's account

In January 1988, China sent a group of ships from Hainan to the southern part of the South China Sea. This included four ships despatched to the north-west of the Spratly Islands. The four ships then began provoking and harassing the Vietnamese ships around Tizard Bank and the London Reefs. Vietnam believed this battle group intended to create a reason to "occupy the Spratly Islands in a preventive counterstrike".[3]

In response, two transport ships from the Vietnam Navy's Brigade 125, the HQ-604 and HQ-505, were mobilized. They carried nearly 100 army officers and men to Johnson South Reef, Collin Reef, and Lansdowne Reef in the Spratly Islands.[4] On 14 March 1988, as the soldiers from the HQ-604 were moving construction materials to Johnson South Reef, the four Chinese ships arrived.[4]

Commander Tran Duc Thong ordered Second Lieutenant Tran Van Phuong and two men, Nguyen Van Tu and Nguyen Van Lanh, to rush to the reef in a small boat and the Vietnamese flag that had been planted there the previous day.[4] The Chinese landed armed soldiers on the reef, and the PLA-N frigates opened fire on the Vietnamese ships. Both the HQ-604 and HQ-605 (all armed transports) were sunk.[4] The HQ-505 armed transport was ordered to run aground on Collin reef to prevent the Chinese from taking it.[4]

Vietnamese soldiers, most of them unarmed, formed a circle on the reef to protect the Vietnamese flag. The Chinese attacked, and the Vietnamese soldiers resisted as best they could.[4] A skirmish ensued in which the Chinese shot and bayoneted dead some Vietnamese soldiers, but they were unable to capture the flag.[4] The Chinese finally retreated enabling PLA-N frigates to open fire on the reef's defenders. When all of the Vietnamese had been killed or wounded, the Chinese occupied the reef and began building a bunker. Vietnam reported that 64 Vietnamese soldiers had been killed in the battle.[3][5]

Vietnam also accused China of refusing to allow Vietnam's Red Cross ship to recover bodies and wounded soldiers.[6]

Independent account

Cheng Tun-jen and Tien Hung-mao, two American professors, summarized the battle as following: in late 1987, the PRC started deploying troops to some of the unoccupied reefs of the Spratly Islands. Soon after the PLA stormed the Johnson South Reef on 14 March 1988, a skirmish began between Vietnamese troops and PRC landing parties. Within a year, the PLA occupied and took over seven reefs and rocks in the Spratly Islands.[7]

Koo Min Gyo, Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Administration at Yonsei University, Seoul, South Korea, reported the battle's course was as follows: On 31 January 1988, two Vietnamese armed cargo ships approached the Fiery Cross Reef to get construction material to build structures signifying Vietnam's claim over the reef.[1] However, the PLA-N intercepted the ships and forced them away from the reef.[1] On 17 February, a group of Chinese ships (a PLA-N destroyer, escort, and transport ships) and several Vietnamese ships (a minesweeper and armed freighter) all attempted to land troops at Cuarteron Reef. Eventually the outgunned Vietnamese ships were forced to withdraw.[1] On 13 and 14 March, a PLAN artillery frigate was surveying the Johnson reef until it spotted three Vietnamese ships approaching its location.[1] Both sides dispatched troops to occupy Johnson Reef.[1] After shots were fired by ground forces on the reef, the Chinese and Vietnamese ships opened fire on each other.[1]


China moved quickly to consolidate its presence. By the end of 1988, it had occupied six reefs and atolls in the Spratly Islands.[1]

In 1994, China had a similar confrontation by asserting its ownership of Mischief Reef, which was inside the claimed EEZ of the Philippines. However, the Philippines only made a political protest, since according to the Henry L. Stimson Center, the Philippine Navy decided to avoid direct confrontation. This was partly based on the Johnson South Reef Skirmish, in which the Chinese had killed Vietnamese troops even though the conflict took place near the Vietnamese-controlled area.[8]

See also



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  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 "Secrets of the Sino-Vietnamese skirmish in the South China Sea", WENWEIPO.COM LIMITED., March 14, 1988
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