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Spratly Skirmish - 1988

By 1987 Vietnam, like the other claimants in the Spratlys, was alarmed over Chinese naval activities and consequently protested and reiterated its own claim of sovereignty of the Spratlys. The Chinese continued Its survey activities in the Spratlys in 1988. In February, Vietnam once again charged the Chinese with intruding Into its territories in the Spratly Archglpelago, and accused China of violating its sovereignty by landing troops on two reefs.

China ignored the protest and reportedly occupied Fiery Cross Reef where construction works for a permanent base commenced. To counter this action, Vietnam occupied four more Islands in the first two months of 1988, and China followed suit by occupying a few more reefs. The ensuing protest and counter protest climaxed into a clash on March 14, 1988. Both sides accused each other of causing the encounter. Vietnam alleged that the Chinese provoked its troops by landing more than seventy armed personnel on Gac Ma Reef (Johnson Reef). When they were told to leave, the Chinese opened fire.

The Chinese, on the other hand, accused the Vietnamese of starting the skirmish. According to them a Chinese survey team went ashore to set up an observation post when forty three Vietnamese armed with weapons alighted from three ships on the same islet at the same time. When told to leave, the Vietnamese opened fire and wounded one Chinese member of the survey team. This was then followed by machine gun fire from the ships and that incited the Chinese to return the fire. During the brief exchange of fires, the Vietnamese vessels were set ablaze. The battle was said to have lasted for about 28 mlnutes.

By the end of April 1988, the Chinese were reported to have seized a total of six Islets. Another one was garrisoned in May. In agitation, the Vietnamese purportedly occupied three more islets, making the total number of islets under its control twenty one. Both Beijing and Hanoi continued to throw slanderous statements against each other, while beefing up their respective forces. Vietnam was alleged by the Chinese to have amassed more than thirty ships in the vicinity of the Spratly Islands, while the former claimed that the Chinese had some twenty big ships armed and accompanied by a submarine. In July 1988, military constructions on Fiery Cross Reef was reported to have been completed by the Chinese. Among others, a 300 meter pier that can handle 4,000 ton ships, a helipad, and an oceanographic observation station were built on this reef.

After the March 14 incident, other claimants started to react. Taiwan resupplied Its troops on the Taiping Island (Itu Aba) and reinforced the garrison. In addition, two missile destroyers and supporting ships were dispatched to conduct an exercise based on the later defending of the island. At about the same time, the Taiwan Minister of Defense made a statement to Parliament that Taiwan would avoid getting involved in the Chinese-Vietnamese conflict, but emphasized that Taiwan would defend its territory in the Spratlys to the last man.

The Philippines also responded to the event. On March 17, the Philippines Issued a warning statement to both the Chinese and the Vietnamese not to disturb its territories In the Kalayan. By May, all the occupied Islands that the Philippines claimed were reinforced with additional personnel and weapons systems. Troops assigned to these islands were put on full alert and had once reacted to foreign "intrusion". Four Taiwan fishing boats were seized in the Kalayan waters in August after being accused of Intruding into the Philippines territories.

Malaysia reacted In the same manner as the Philippines to protect Its claims in the Spratlys. On April 5, the Malaysian Navy arrested 49 Philippine fishermen near the Commodore Reef. They were alleged to have entered into Malaysian territorial waters illegally. After some protests from Manila, the Malaysians finally released these people without any prosecution. More charges were later raised by the Philippines over naval and air activities supposedly to be Malaysian In the vicinity of Palawan Island. In September, the Filipino Defense Secretary announced that the Philippines Armed Forces had already reinforced Its naval and air forces in the South and that its fishermen would be given naval protection.

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