In a bold move, the Vietnam government commemorated (14th March) the 34th anniversary of a battle against the Chinese navy in the (Gac Ma reef/Johnson South reef) of South China Sea (SCS). The ceremony was officially attended by the Prime Minister, Pham Minh Chinh for the first time in history. Chinh was the first top Vietnamese leader to lead such a commemoration of the fallen soldiers in SCS. Johnson South is a reef in the Spratly islands in the SCS.
Chinh visited the Memorial for the Johnson South Reef battle in the south-central of Khanh Hoa province (the administrative headquarters of Vietnam’s Spratly Islands) and paid tribute to the Vietnamese soldiers. The Vietnamese PM also recorded his views in the visitors’ book and affirmed that “64 soldiers of the Vietnam People’s navy had heroically and selflessly defended the sacred sovereignty of the fatherland”. It may be recalled that 64 Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the incident on March 14, 1988 and the reef in SCS was occupied by Chinese navy. Earlier, the PM also visited and offered tribute to martyrs (Sino-Vietnam war 1979) at the Po Hen memorial site in Mong cai city, Quang Ninh province on January 26, 2022.
In addition, the government of Vietnam also took the unprecedented step of allowing print and electronic media to cover these events. Further, Chinh also ordered the local government to develop the Spratlys into “an economic, cultural and social center” and assert its authority in the SCS.
For a long time, the Sino-Vietnam clash was not publicly discussed due to Chinese pressure. It is still not included in the educational curriculum. The Vietnamese state-controlled media tend to omit the word “China” and replace it with “foreign forces” while referring to the incidents. Earlier, the Vietnamese state systematically silenced the commemoration of the war by censoring journalists and covering the topic vaguely in Vietnamese history textbooks.
Meanwhile, low-profile anniversaries of the fierce fight against the Chinese invasion are organized each year in local cemeteries. Vietnamese veterans, military enthusiasts, historians and diplomats have repeatedly urged the government since long to reconsider their decades of deliberate silence and help people understand the facts of the war.
In the early 1990s, Vietnam sought to re-establish diplomatic relations with China. Due to the Chinese aggression in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in 2014 by placement of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig, the relations once again got disturbed. The incident led to the worst diplomatic crisis between Hanoi and Beijing since 1979, prompting anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam. It also resulted in the Vietnamese public and the media evincing greater interest in the country’s past armed clashes with China. Since 2014, there has also been a more pronounced commemoration of the 1979 war, including the battle of Vi Xuyen, in the Vietnamese media.
The significant change in present attitude of the Vietnam government indicates that the new dispensation aims to give a clear message of its maritime sovereignty and self-reliance. China claims sovereignty over all of the Spratly Islands, where Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have similar claims. Vietnam’s coastline bordering the South China Sea is over 3,000 kms long and its geographic proximity to these waters stands in the way of China’s SCS ambitions and maritime expansionism.