While occurring 28 years ago, the incident is most telling as far as China’s deadly resolve to prevent its neighbors from disputing its territorial claims in the region.
Hostilities between Vietnam and China go back a millennium, ever since the former broke away from the latter in 938. Practically every century since then, China has invaded Vietnam. Despite usually being outnumbered, the Vietnamese met every invasion with amazing determination and courage, often even emerging victorious. The most recent example was China’s defeat in 1979 in a 30-day war after its forces crossed into Vietnam, ostensibly to teach it a lesson.
Vietnamese shout anti-China slogans during a protest in Hanoi, Vietnam Monday, March, 14, 2016 as about 200 Vietnamese gather to remember 64 Vietnamese soldiers who were killed by the Chinese navy in a clash 28 years ago in the disputed South China Sea. They lit incense and laid flowers at the statue of King Ly Thai To, a Vietnamese hero, and then marched around the landmark Hoan Kiem Lake, chanting "down with Communist China's aggression" in the commemoration that lasted an hour. (AP Photo/Tran Van Minh)
In March 1988, another confrontation evolved—this one occurring in the South China Sea.
While many nations in the region lay claim to various islands there, China has been the most aggressive in asserting its claims—not only over existing islands but over artificial ones it has built and militarized. With over seven billion barrels in proven oil reserves lying beneath these waters, both economic and strategic incentives exist to stake out a claim.
A South China Sea reef, known to the Vietnamese as “Gac Ma” and on Western maps as “Johnson South Reef,” lies within the Spratly islands—an archipelago consisting of 750 reefs, islets, atolls and islands.
The confrontation occurred when 73 Vietnamese soldiers landed on the completely barren reef. China dispatched a landing force to dislodge the Vietnamese. When a Chinese force attempting to land on the reef was repelled, the Chinese ships opened fire on the Vietnamese defenders. Despite the lack of cover and concealment, the courageous defenders established an “immortal circle” around the reef—the Vietnamese flag firmly set in the center.
With absolutely no defense against the Chinese naval guns raking the reef with gunfire, the Vietnamese relentlessly stood their ground. When the guns grew silent, only nine Vietnamese survived.
While neither side publicized the massacre at the time, China unabashedly released a video of it in 2012. It can only be surmised its purpose was to intimidate its neighbors as China further embarked upon its island-claiming and island-building efforts.
To underscore its message to others, Beijing has left the video of the massacre on-line for viewing. It is horrific to watch as the victims stoically meet their end, having no place to hide.
A Chinese military base and airfield now stands upon Gac Ma—a reef that, for the Vietnamese, will always remain an eternal symbol of the courage of its military in resisting Chinese aggression.
Today, Hanoi, undoubtedly, is intimidated—with good reason—by a far more formidable Chinese military than the one it faced in 1979.
In 2015, in effort to publicize China’s massacre of the 64 Vietnamese soldiers, a Vietnamese painting of “the immortal circle” was done and put up for auction. It elicited a great deal of emotion among the Vietnamese people, as well as a call for international action to be taken against China. While the bidding for the portrait was intense, the call for international action against China met with silence.
The Vietnamese are not alone in being intimidated by China. While President Barack Obama has dispatched U.S. Navy ships periodically to exercise an international right of passage within the territorial waters of these various islands, he has failed to have those ships undertake the kinds of activities to demonstrate we contest their claims.
All ships have an international right of innocent passage through another country’s territorial waters. But such transit must be performed expeditiously. Only dragging out a transit to conduct activities totally unnecessary to its completion—such as training exercises—constitutes an official challenge to a nation’s claim of territorial water ownership. This appears yet to have been done during any of the transits made by U.S. Navy ships.
China is involved in a deadly South China Sea chess match in which it claims as its own that which is not. While the massacre at Gac Ma demonstrates the extreme to which Beijing is willing to go with its claims, the meaningless transit of U.S. Navy ships exercising their right of innocent passage demonstrates the extreme to which Obama will go to avoid the issue. Failing to challenge China now on this matter will only increase the cost of doing so later.
On the South China Sea island-claiming issue, the Chinese are proving to be a master chess player. Sadly, Obama is not.
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