As relations continue to deteriorate between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, it is easy to forget that China has had previous conflicts over other island chains that exist in close proximity to its borders. One such conflict occurred on March 14, 1988 between Vietnamese forces and elements of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
Taiwan, the PRC, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have all laid claim to the Spratly Islands, an uninhabited collection of 750 islands, reefs and atolls in the South China Sea. Apart from rich fishing grounds and possible oil and gas deposits, the islands have no economic value; their primary value being geopolitical in nature. In early 1988, Vietnamese forces began landing forces and construction supplies at one of the reefs in order to further their claim to the area. A short skirmish erupted when the Vietnamese forces encountered a PLAN squadron.
Despite this confrontation, the two countries continued to operate in the area until March 14 when PLAN and Vietnamese forces again collided. This time the firefight was more intense and by the time it was over two Vietnamese transports had been sunk and another heavily damaged. While the Chinese suffered no casualties, the Vietnamese lost more than 70 sailors in the short and sharp encounter.
The Chinese victory, now known as the Johnson South Reef Skirmish, allowed the PLA to occupy several more reefs in the area and expand their area of influence at the expense of Vietnam. A resolution to the issue between the multitude of sparring countries has yet to occur and provides simply one more smoldering match to the growing powder keg that is the South and East China Seas.