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The Impact of the Johnson South Reef Skirmish on the South China Sea Conflict

Essay 2016 13 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Thema: Sonstiges




Geographic Background

Historical Background

Johnson South Reef Skirmish

Impact of Conflict

Continued Chinese Provocations against Vietnam and Japan

Chinese Philippines conflicts in South China Sea

Recent U.S. China tensions




The tensions over the South China Sea tends to focus on the adversarial arrangement between the U.S. and China. However, disputes over the South China Sea date much farther back and involve actual conflicts between nation states and their militaries. The most important one of these is the Johnson South Reef Skirmish in 1988. The victory by China in the Johnson South Reef Skirmish emboldened them to make further aggressive claims and actions in the South China Sea. This paper discusses that battle, analyzes its importance, and shows how China has undertaken even more aggressive actions since then. Weather against Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, or even the U.S., this paper demonstrates the consequences of the ability to sink a Vietnamese naval boat in battle with no repercussions for China. Before discussing the Johnson South Reef Skirmish and the impact it had, this paper describes the geographic background of the disputes and the historical relevance of past claims of territory.

Geographic Background

The Johnson South Reef is part of a large group of islands in the South China Sea known as the Spratly islands. [1] Located 100 kilometers north of Malaysia and 160 Kilometers west of the Philippines, the Spratly islands contain over 600 coral reefs, 150 named landforms and many more unnamed bits of land. [2] The Spratly islands are part of the South China Sea, which is located between China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, east of Malaysia, and North of Borneo. The South China Sea is one of the largest shipping lanes in the world. [3] Along with being a vital shipping lane, there is an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil reserves and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves in the South China Sea. [4] The location, resources, and shipping lanes of the islands in the South China Sea, including the Spratly islands, turn the islands into a geo-political dispute that has no easy answer.

Historical Background

The dispute over territorial control over the South China Sea has started to heat up in the 20th and 21st century, however the roots of the conflict go much farther back. China claims that the South China Sea was used by Chinese fisherman as far back as 200 BC. [5] This argument is not sufficient to many, for there is little evidence of it and even if true does not equate to claims today. The islands were recent disputes dates back to World War II. During the Second World War Japan took over the Spratly and Parcel islands in 1939. [6] When Japan was defeated at the end of WWII in 1945 the nationalist Chinese government accepted the Japanese surrender to the claims of the Parcel and Spratly islands. [7] Two years later the Republic of China set up what became called the nine dash line. The line was China’s version of what was in their territory, at the time it had 11 lines and showed the Spratly’s and Parcels as part of Chinese territory. [8] These claims should have been rejected, however the good relationship between the U.S. and China at the time likely stopped anyone in the Truman administration from voicing serious concern against it. As the nationalists were about to be forced out of power in China, they withdrew from their garrisons in the Spratly’s and Parcels. When the communists came to power in China they got rid of two of the 11 lines, but endorsed the rest of the lines. [9] In accordance with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan renounced all claims to the Spratly and Parcel islands. [10] Tensions over the South China Sea remained low at the time, before they started to pick up again in the 1970s. In 1974, China protested South Vietnamese forces occupying the Parcel Islands. Fighting broke out over the South Vietnamese and the Chinese navies. The Chinese were able to force the South Vietnamese off the Parcels and occupy them in the Battle of the Parcel Islands. [11] The Vietnamese lost fifty 53 men in the battle and the Chinese lost 18. [12] This battle was a blow to the Vietnamese, however it did not represent as enormous as an effect as the Johnson. Vietnam was not a unified country at the time, and the future government of Vietnam was much different than the one under South Vietnam during the battle of Parcel Islands. Along with not having the same government that it would, Vietnam would suffer higher causalities under the Johnson South Reef Skirmish.

Johnson South Reef Skirmish

A meeting in 1987 of the 14th UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) allowed China to observe five observation posts. [13] China choose the Fiery Cross Reef for one, due to it being remote from other claims and large enough for an observation post. Vietnamese forces started to monitor the Chinese during January 1988 at their observation post.[14] Vietnamese and Chinese claims on the so called skirmish that led to the death of over 70 Vietnamese sailors differ. Vietnam claims that China provoked its troops by landing more than 70 armed personnel on Johnson Reef. When the Vietnamese told them to leave the Chinese started opening fire. [15] The Chinese account is that forty three armed Vietnamese told the Chinese survey team to leave, when they refused they injured one member of the survey team. This was followed by machine guns from ships which prompted a response from the Chinese navy. [16] The battle lasted for about 28 minutes with the result being the Vietnamese vessels set ablaze. Over Seventy Vietnamese sailors were killed in the battle. [17] The events in March 1988 over the Johnson South Reef represent more than just a skirmish, for the Vietnamese suffered greatly in the battle and China gained a huge psychological advantage.

Impact of Conflict

China’s determination to use force in the Johnson South Reef Skirmish showed not just Vietnam, but other East Asian neighbors as well that China was willing to use force to defend what they considered theirs.


[1] Jojo Malig, “Chinese Ships eye ‘bumper harvest’ in Spratlys,” ABS-CBN News, 7/17/12,

[2] “South China Sea, between the Philippines, Borneo, Vietnam, and China,” World Wildlife Fund, accessed 2/19/16,

[3] Jamie Wang, “U.S. report details rich resources in South China Sea,” Focus Taiwan News Agency, 02/09/13,

[4] Ibid

[5] Larry Wortzel, Robin Hingham, “Dictionary of Contemporary Chinese Military History,” ABC-CLIO, Google Books , accessed 3/5/16,

[6] Timo Kivimaki, “War or Peace in the South China Sea,” NIAS Press, Google Books , accessed 3/5/16,

[7] James Morley, Masashi Nishihara, “Vietnam Joins the World,” M.E. Sharpe, Google Books , accessed 3/5/16,

[8] Martin Riegl, Jakub Landovsky, Irina Valko, “Strategic Regions in 21st Century Power Politics,” Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Google Books , accessed 2/19/16.

[9] Peter Brown, “Calculated ambiguity in the South China Sea,” Asia Times Online, 12/8/2009,

[10] “Treaty of Peace with Japan, Taiwan Document Project, accessed 3/5/16,

[11] “Parcel (Xisha) Islands,”, accessed 3/5/16, .

[12] “Battle of the Parcel Islands,” Project Gutenberg, accessed 3/14/16,

[13] Min Gyo Koo, “Island Disputes and Maritime Regime building in East Asia,” Springer Science and Business Media, Google Books , accessed 3/5/2016

[14] Ibid

[15] “Spratly Skirmish-1988,”, accessed 3/7/16,

[16] Ibid

[17] “Factbox- The South China’s Sea disputed maritime borders,” Reuters, 10/06/2010,


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Titel: The Impact of the Johnson South Reef Skirmish on the South China Sea Conflict