14 March

The Johnson South Reef Skirmish of 1988 was a naval battle that took place between Chinese and Vietnamese forces over Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands on this day.

Two independent versions:

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

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.  However, the PLA-N intercepted the ships and forced them away from the reef. 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 out-gunned Vietnamese ships were forced to withdraw. On 13 and 14 March, a PLAN artillery frigate was surveying the Johnson reef until it spotted three Vietnamese ships approaching its location. Both sides dispatched troops to occupy Johnson Reef. After shots were fired by ground forces on the reef, the Chinese and Vietnamese ships opened fire on each other.

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

Locating the Spratly Islands in relation to the disputing countries