Johnson South Reef Skirmish

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Johnson South Reef Skirmish
Date March 14, 1988
Location Johnson South Reef
Result Chinese victory
 China  Vietnam
Commanders and leaders
Chen Weiwen 陈伟文, CO 502 Nanchong Deputy Brigadier Tran Duc Thong;
Le Lenh Son, CO HQ-605;
Vu Phi Tru , CO HQ-604;
Vu Huy Le, CO HQ-505
Units involved
502 Nanchong 南充 (Jiangnan Class/065) frigate;
556 Xiangtan 湘潭 (Jianghu II Class/053H1) frigate;
531 Yingtan 鹰潭 (Jiangdong Class/053K) frigate
HQ-505 (ex Quy Nhon HQ-504) landing craft;
HQ-604 armed transporter;
HQ-605 armed transporter
Casualties and losses
Over 70 killed [1][2]
9 captured [2]
HQ-604 and HQ-605 sunk[3]
HQ-505 heavily damaged

Vietnamese figures:
3 killed [4][5]
74 missing [4][5] (presumed dead)

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 March 14, 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.[6] In March 1987, the UNESCO IOC commissioned China to build the observation post at the Spratly Islands.[6] 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.[6] Between January and February, Vietnamese forces began establishing a presence at surrounding reefs to monitor the Chinese activity.[6] This led to a series of confrontations as the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) began defending its position.[6]


Map of Union Banks, where the battle occurred

China's account[edit]

On March 13, the frigate Nanchong detected PAVN Vietnamese transporter HQ-604 heading toward Johnson South Reef, transporter 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.[3]

At approximately 07:30 hours 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 Sublieutenant Tran Van Phuong disputed the flag against PLA-N sailor Du Xianghou resulting in pitched battle between the two opposing forces. Vietnamese forces, with transporter HQ-604 in support, opened fire[3] in response. PLA-N forces and the frigate Nanchong counter-attacked at 08:47 hours: transporter HQ-604 was set ablaze in the firefight and sunk.[3]

At 09:15 hours, the frigate Xiangtan arrived at the Lansdowne reef and discovered 9 Vietnamese troops from transporter HQ-605 had already landed. The frigate Xiangtan immediately hailed the Vietnamese forces demanding their withdrawal from the reef and was met with Vietnamese fire in reply.[3] In the ensuing firefight, the HQ-605 was damaged heavily and sunk by the Chinese.[3]

Vietnam's account[edit]

In January 1988, China sent out a group of ships from Hainan to south of South China Sea, including four ships to the Western North of Spratly Islands. These four ships then began provocating and harassing Vietnamese ships around Tizard Bank and London Reefs. Vietnam believed this battle group sought to occupy Spratly Islands in the name of a "preventive counterstrike".[7]

Also in 1988, two transport ships from the Navy's Brigade 125, HQ-604 and HQ-505, were mobilized. They carried nearly 100 officers and soldiers to the Johnson South Reef, Collin Reef and Lansdowne Reef in the Spratly Islands.[8] On March 14, 1988, when the Vietnamese soldiers from the ship HQ-604 were moving construction materials to the Johnson South Reef, four Chinese ships arrived.[8]

Commander Tran Duc Thong ordered second-lieutenant Tran Van Phuong and two soldiers, Nguyen Van Tu and Nguyen Van Lanh, to use a small boat to rush to the reef in view of protecting the Vietnam flag planted there one day before.[8] Meanwhile, the Chinese force used small boats to transfer fully armed soldiers to the reef and frigates opened fire to the Vietnamese ship nearby, sinking HQ-604 and HQ-605 (both are armed transport ship).[8] The HQ-505 armed transport ship was deliberately went aground the Collin reef to prevent the Chinese from taking it.[8]

In the reef, Vietnamese soldiers, mostly unarmed, formed a circle trying to protect Vietnam flag. So a battle ensued, the Vietnamese soldiers used anything they could to stop the Chinese.[8] In order to advance, Chinese soldiers shot and stabbed dead some Vietnamese soldiers but was unable to capture the flag.[8] Ultimately, all Chinese soldiers retreated to let nearby frigates fire heavy artillery onto the reef. After killing or capturing all Vietnamese, China occupied the reef and then hastily began building a bunker. A total of 64 Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the battle.[7][9]

Vietnam also accused China of preventing the Vietnam's Red Cross ship from recovering wounded soldiers.[10]

Independent account[edit]

Cheng Tun-jen and Tien Hung-mao, two American professors summarized the battle as following: in late 1987, PRC started to deploy troops to some unoccupied reefs of the Spratly Islands. Soon after the PLA stormed the Johnson South Reef, a skirmish began between the Vietnamese troops and PRC landing parties on March 14, 1988. Within a year, the PLA took over seven reefs and rocks of the Spratly Islands.[11]

Koo Min Gyo, Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Administration at Yonsei University, Seoul, Korea, reported the battle's course as following: in 31 January 1988, two Vietnamese armed cargo ships began approaching the Fiery Cross Reef, so they could get construction material there to build structures to signify the Vietnamese claim over the reef.[6] However, the PLAN intercepted the ships and steered them away from the reef.[6] On 17 February, a group of Chinese ships (PLAN destroyer, escort, and transport ships) and Vietnamese ships (minesweeper and armed freighter) attempted to land their troops at Cuarteron Reef, but eventually the Vietnamese ships were forced to withdraw from the Chinese ships.[6] On 13 and 14 March, a PLAN guided missile escort ship was surveying the Johnson reef until three Vietnamese ships began approaching its location.[6] Both sides dispatched troops to land at the Johnson Reef.[6] However, after shots were fired on the reef, both sides' ships began opening fire against each other.[6]


China moved quickly to follow up on its victory. By the end of 1988, it had occupied six reefs and atolls in the Spratly Islands.[6]

In 1994 China had a similar confrontation asserting its territory at the Mischief Reef, which was at that time inside the claimed EEZ of the Philippines. However, there was only political protest from the Philippines since, according the Henry L. Stimson Center, the Philippine Navy decided to avoid confrontation, a decision that was partly based on the Johnson South Reef Skirmish where Vietnamese troops were killed despite the conflict taking place near the Vietnamese-controlled area.[12]



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  2. ^ a b "FACTBOX-The South China Sea's disputed maritime borders". Reuters. 6 October 2010. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Secrets of the Sino-Vietnamese skirmish in the South China Sea", WENWEIPO.COM LIMITED., March 14, 1988
  4. ^ a b Brecher, Michael; Wilkenfeld, Jonathan (1997). A Study of Crisis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. p. 163. ISBN 0-472-10806-9. 
  5. ^ a b Mackerras, Colin (2001). The New Cambridge Handbook of Contemporary China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 30. ISBN 0-521-78-143-4. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Koo, Min Gyo (2009). Island Disputes and Maritime Regime Building in East Asia. Dordrecht: Springer. p. 154. ISBN 978-1-4419-6223-2. 
  7. ^ a b Hồng Chuyên. "Một phần Trường Sa của Việt Nam bị Trung Quốc chiếm như thế nào? (bài 8) (How China took a part of Vietnam's Spratly Islands)". infornet. Infornews. Retrieved 19 March 2014. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g QUỐC VIỆT (1988-03-14). ""Vòng tròn bất tử" trên bãi Gạc Ma (The immortal circle in the Johnson South Reef)". Tuổi Trẻ. Tuổi Trẻ newspaper. Retrieved 19 March 2014. 
  9. ^ H.QUÂN - V.TÌNH - X.HOÀI (2014-03-14). "Tưởng niệm 64 anh hùng liệt sĩ hy sinh bảo vệ đảo Gạc Ma ngày 14-3-1988 (Honoring 54 martyrs who died for protecting the Johnson South Reef in 14-03-1988)". Vietbao. Vietbao. Retrieved 19 March 2014. 
  10. ^ Từ Đặng Minh Thu (7-1-2008). "Tranh chấp Trường Sa - Hoàng Sa: Giải quyết cách nào? (Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands dispute: How to resolve?)". Công an Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh. Công an Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh Magazine. Retrieved 19 March 2014. 
  11. ^ Cheng, Tun-jen; Tien, Hung-mao (2000). The Security environment in the Asia-Pacific. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe. p. 264. ISBN 0-7656-0539-2. 
  12. ^ Cronin, Richard P. (2010-02-04). "China’s Activities in Southeast Asia and the Implications for U.S. Interests".