For the second time since the Johnson South Reef – Gac Ma skirmish twenty-five years ago, the largest daily newspapers in Vietnam have written special columns commemorating sixty-four martyrs sacrificed to defend their homeland’s sovereignty at the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Vietnam and China have been known as neighbors and brothers like “lips and teeth”. However, bearing the same pressure as other China’s “unhappy neighbors”, Vietnam had to fight against its big brother China to protect its sovereignty. The skirmish on March 14th, 1988 at Johnson South Reef – Gac Ma (Spratly Islands) is a recent Sino-Vietnamese naval confrontation. The site lies at 4 nautical miles (nm) to the northwest of Vietnamese-controlled Collins Reef. Chinese gunboats sank and damaged three Vietnamese vessels. Sixty-four Vietnamese soldiers were killed and many others injured, while one Chinese was wounded.
Despite many conflicts in the past, Hanoi and Peking always maintain their “16 golden words and four cardinal principles” for example regarding the bilateral consensus to actively guide public opinion on the South China Sea disputes, a ‘sensible’ subject to Vietnamese government-controlled media (aka. “right side” media, in comparison to the free “left side” one) for long time. But the anti-China sentiment in public has been on the rise since the cable-seized incident of Vietnamese ships on May 2011.
In the past two recent years, there have been remarkable improvements of media in Vietnam on the South China Sea issues, especially with the development of new media with blogs, forum or the social networks where everyone may express and share easily their opinions to the world.
However, the Johnson South Reef skirmish is a poorly titled subject in Vietnamese “right side” media. On May 7th, 2012, the Vietnamese government organized for the first time a commemoration day for sixty-four martyrs sacrificed in navel battle at Johnson South Reef. This year, Tuoi Tre, one of largest “right wing” newspapers, focuses on the topic with a series of touching stories about killed soldiers, live witness and remains of the battle that create actually a tacit movement that heats up the anti-China sentiment in the Vietnamese communities and social networks.
It’s also important to mention that the Sino-Vietnamese naval battle on January 19th, 1974 at Paracels Islands was officially commemorated for the first time last January 19th 2013 by Thanh Nien News, another government-controlled daily newspaper.
Both Vietnam and China have declared the historical sovereignty in the South China Sea (including Spratly Islands and Paracels Islands) where five other countries (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan) also claimed their territory or territory rights.
Tuong Nguyen is a computer science postdoctoral fellow in France and free commentator on maritime affairs.