Has Vietnam signaled a shift in its China policy by allowing public observances of a deadly confrontation with Chinese forces in the Spratly Islands nearly three decades ago?

Images from 1988 sea battle between Vietnam and China
Images from 1988 sea battle between Vietnam and China

The naval clash between Vietnam and China over Johnson South Reef, aka Gac Ma Island, was the last battle between the two communist neighbors. It occurred on March 14, 1988 when Chinese forces launched an attack on the island that was formerly under Vietnamese control. This resulted in the deaths of 64 Vietnamese soldiers, the sinking of two Vietnamese ships and China’s occupation of the reef as well as other islets and rocks in the Spratly Islands ever since.

Despite Vietnam’s heavy loss of human life and territory, the military incident was soon deliberately ignored by the Vietnamese government following a 1990 summit between Hanoi and Beijing in Chengdu that led to a normalization of ties in 1991.

In fact, for nearly three decades after that secret meeting, the clash was seen as a very sensitive, if not taboo, topic in Vietnam. Neither was the incident taught at schools or aired in political discourse. Recollection of the clash was often avoided by the one-party state’s highly censored media.

Any attempts by local activists to mark the bloody skirmish, moreover, were thwarted or forcefully interrupted by police.

Mood swing

However, there have been growing signs of a remarkable change in the official mood regarding the event in recent years, culminating in the battle’s 28th anniversary this year.

Prior to and on March 14, the seemingly non-existent clash was vividly recalled and widely covered by Vietnam’s media. State and party outlets deferentially called the 64 killed soldiers “heroes” or “martyrs” and explicitly described the incident as a battle against “Chinese invasion forces.”

Vietnamese shout anti-China slogans during a protest in Hanoi, Vietnam on March, 14.
Vietnamese shout anti-China slogans during a protest in Hanoi, Vietnam on March 14.

A high school in Ho Chi Minh City observed one minute of silence to commemorate the battle, which was hitherto virtually unheard of to many young Vietnamese. A song composed to honor the 64 fallen soldiers was published in Tuoi Tre, one of the country’s main and most-read newspapers.

Former Gac Ma soldiers and their sacrifices have been recognised and honored. The families of the 64 fallen soldiers have been supported by the government.

Not official but …

Though the Vietnamese government didn’t officially mark the battle’s 28th anniversary, memorial services for the fallen soldiers were organised at many localities across the country. Hundreds of war veterans, soldiers and local officials and people participated in these commemorative events, which were all reported by party and state outlets, including the ruling party’s two media mouthpieces, namely Nhan Dan (People) Newspaper and the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Online Newspaper.

Reporting the memorial ceremony in Da Nang, Nhan Dan depicted the 64 killed soldiers as the “martyrs who died in a battle against Chinese forces to protect Gac Ma Island, part of Vietnam’s Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago.”

Nhan Dan as well as other media outlets quoted a speech by Hoang Van Hoan, senior lieutenant colonel and former political commissar of Brigade 83, one of the units directly involved in the 1988 battle. In it, Hoan stressed the service was held not just to honor the 64 fallen heroes but also to remind younger generations of their duties to protect their country’s territory.

Most unusually, to the surprise of activists and many observers, rallies to remember the event and to denounce China’s growing aggressiveness in East Sea (the Vietnamese name for the South China Sea) in Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh City on March 14 weren’t disrupted by the authorities.

All of these developments around the battle’s 28th anniversary are noteworthy since Vietnam is a tightly controlled country, where public protest is prohibited and media strictly censored. Until recently, any reference to its past conflicts and unresolved maritime disputes with its giant neighbor were extremely sensitive.

They are even more telling given the fact that the party hierarchy has been very measured – and for many Vietnamese, too restrained – in its handling of disputes with China over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

In this context, there’s no doubt that Vietnam’s main state media outlets, notably the party’s two official mouthpieces, were able to use such unambiguous language to depict the incident because the CPV’s leadership allowed them to do so.

Party’s motives

The question being asked is why the party hierarchy permitted more public discussion, commemoration and coverage of the 1988 battle this year.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is that calls not to ignore past skirmishes with China have become increasingly numerous and vocal. They come from both outside and within the CPV.

For example, many people in academic and media circles have increasingly stressed that their country must not disregard the battles against China, including the 1974 Paracel battle, the 1979 border war with China and the 1988 Spratlys clash. Instead, it’s being argued that the people must be fully informed about these events and that they should be taught at Vietnamese schools.

In an interview with Tuoi Tre on March 13, a senior official in the party’s Central Propaganda Department also said it’s very necessary to provide the Vietnamese people with full and truthful accounts of past events in Sino-Vietnamese relations. He also said the country’s state media and political system must take responsibility for this.

The relaxation in official attitudes has also taken place because perceptions of China within the CPV’s hierarchy has changed. While it’s unclear whether the recent changeover in party leadership is a factor, it’s evident that the leadership is now more expressive and critical of China’s historical and current behaviors.

South China Sea factor

The fundamental reason why the Vietnamese public has vehemently called on the CPV to reconsider its past and present relations with China – and the ruling party has been apparently willing to do so – is China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

China’s HD 981 oil-drilling rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone
China’s HD 981 oil-drilling rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone

If the placement of China’s HD 981 oil-drilling rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in May 2014 marked the lowest ebb in Vietnam’s relationship with China since 1991, the latter’s latest series of aggressive actions in the disputed sea further compounded Hanoi’s concerns about China’s ambitions.

These “actions” consist of Beijing’s deployment of missiles on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands chain, which is also claimed by Vietnam, and its rapid militarization and massive reclamation of islands, including the Johnson South Reef, in contested waters surrounding the Spratly Islands.

China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea in past years has forced the CPV to increase Vietnam’s military capabilities. Hanoi was the world’s eighth-biggest arms importer from 2011-2015 according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Vietnam has also moved to upgrade its relations with major powers, notably the US.

The ratchet is now being turned on Vietnam’s public posture on Sino-Vietnamese history. Beijing’s recent aggressive and expansionist agenda has convinced the CPV that it no longer needs to avoid mentioning its past conflicts with China. In a further turn of the lever, Hanoi is also more willing to use the coverage and commemoration of these events as a means to express its discontent over China’s behaviors.

Whilst Vietnam’s past conflicts with China are still far from being recalled in the same manner and to the same degree as its two deadly wars against France and the US, the party’s new permissiveness in recalling the 1988 battle marks a significant change in the way the CPV deals with Vietnam’s past and its present relations with its northern giant.

Xuan Loc Doan is a research fellow at the Global Policy Institute. He completed a PhD in International Relations at Aston University, UK in 2013. His areas of interest and research include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN’s relations with major powers, and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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