On this day in 1988, a gunfight broke out on a small island in the South China Sea. In late 1987, Chinese troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had started surveying the Johnson South Reef to solidify Chinese territorial claims in the region. Soon after, members of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) began doing the same. On March 13th of 1988, members of the PAVN planted a small Vietnamese flag on the Johnson South Reef; the following day, a PLA naval party approached the reef to tear the flag down.
Seeing the PLA landing force approaching the reef, a PAVN Lieutenant and some men leapt into a small motorboat and sped off to protect their flag. A gun battle erupted as the two opposing forces met in the ankle-deep water; the battle quickly intensified, and reinforcements arrived from out at sea. A Chinese frigate began hammering PAVN positions with a 20mm cannon as the few remaining Vietnamese men formed a circle around their flag. Minutes later, 64 men had been killed and a number of PAVN vessels sunk. The Chinese triumphantly raised their flag and began constructing defensive positions as the tide began to rise.
A part of the Spratly Islands, the Johnson South Reef was and is disputed territory: both China and Vietnam lay claim to the uninhabited, tiny rock formation and its surroundings. Although the reef has zero hectares of naturally-occuring land – it’s usually covered entirely by water – it has been developed into an artificial island complete with a runway and PLA missile defence systems. For the various regional players – China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines – the various Spratly Islands represent a means for asserting naval power (and securing vital trade routes) in the region. As tensions rise in the South China Sea, further armed conflict over what amounts to a bunch of rocks intermittently poking out of the sea is not inconceivable.
Note: Chinese and Vietnamese accounts of the skirmish differ wildly from one another. As a result, take all claims about the engagement with a grain of salt.