The Battle of Gac Ma: Courage to defend national maritime sovereignty

kho-vu-khi-khong-lo-tren-chien-ham-my-ap-sat-da-chu-thap-hinh-2Thirty years have elapsed since the Battle of Gac Ma and the region has dramatically changed. From a country with no territory in the Spratly, now China has occupied and fortified various outposts for military and civilian purposes in the area. The growing Chinese might has cemented its ambition for complete dominance and hegemony in the South China Sea (Viet Nam's East Sea or Bien Dong). Yet, the Vietnamese people and army would ever stand in unity, never lose their determination and cherish the spirit of the naval soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the homeland's maritime sovereignty in the battle of Gac Ma.

Gac Ma's position

Gac Ma (also known as Johnson South Reef) is a brown submerged reef encircled by an arc of white coral atolls in the southernmost point of Sincowe Island in the center of the Spratly Islands of Viet Nam. Gac Ma is mostly submerged, except for some parts which rise above water. Gac Ma is also claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines.

The Arbitral Ruling on the South China Sea case between the Philippines and China on 12 July 2016 found that Gac Ma is not capable of sustaining human habitation or economic life of their own. As such, it could only have a 12 - nautical mile territorial sea but have no entitlement of exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or continental shelf, according to Article 121 (1) of the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and not a continental shelf or exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

images1977278 fSource: Internet

Spirit of the nation in the battle of Gac Ma

In early 1988, when Vietnamese forces were safeguarding their features in the Spratly, China threw in its troops to take over Chu Thap (Fiery Cross Reef) (31 January 1988), Chau Vien (Cuarteron Reef) (18 February 1988), Ga Ven (Gaven Reef) (26 February 1988), Tu Nghia (Hughes Reef) (28 February 1988) and Xu Bi (Subi Reef) (23 March 1988). Then, China sent its warships to the Spratly. At times, the number of vessels even increased up to 9-12, including a guided-missile destroyer, 07 missile frigates, 02 artillery corvettes, 02 landing ships, 03 transport ships, a surveying ship, towing vessels and a big hoisting platform.

Under that circumstance, the Vietnamese navy sent the HQ-604, HQ-605 and HQ-505 transport ships to protect Gac Ma (11 March 1988), Len Dao (Lansdowne Reef) (12 March 1988) and Da Lon (Discovery Great Reef) respectively against the Chinese plan of invasion in the Spratly.

In no time, China started its attack on Gac Ma, Co Lin and Len Dao with the battle on Gac Ma on 14 March 1988 extremely fierce. It dispatched three fully-armed destroyers with big cannons having a firing range of 10 kilometers to Gac Ma, i.e. the Nanchong 202 (1,400 tons, with three 100-mm artilleries and eight 37-mm artilleries), Xiangtan 556 (1,925 tons, with four 100-mm artilleries and two 37-mm artilleries) and Yingtan 531 (1,925 tons, with four 100-mm artilleries and eight 37-mm artilleries). Chinese troops aggressively provoked and fired at the Vietnamese engineering forces in Gac Ma.

Meanwhile, 03 500-ton unarmed Vietnamese transport ships were not capable of fighting against the Chinese destroyers. Vietnamese sailors were only armed with AK-47 and RPG07, which only had a range of hundreds of meters, to fight back Chinese landing ships.

Due to this unmatching military strengths, China was completely predominant and took over Gac Ma. 64 brave Vietnamese soldiers died. HQ-604 was shot and sank near Gac Ma. The HQ-650 sank near Len Dao and HQ-505 was shot at its tail and caught fire en route Co Lin.

Though unable to defend and keep Gac Ma, Vietnamese naval soldiers were determined to sacrifice their lives to protect the motherland's maritime sovereignty and maintained their positions in Co Lin and Len Dao. They, however, could put a stop to China's invasion in the Spratly. Today, Viet Nam can uphold 21 islands and 33 outposts in the Spratly.

The brave combat spirit of the Vietnamese naval soldiers in the battle of Gac Ma represents the Vietnamese people's time-honored determination in defending national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.


Thirty years after the battle of Gac Ma, China's might and influence have dramatically increased. Since 2010, China has become the second biggest economy in the world. In 2017, China's GDP grew by 6,9% and it is expected to surpass the U.S to become the biggest economy in 2030.

China's economic might has come along with its growing ambitions at sea. China sees it should become a "sea power" to reach out to the world. To that end, China has pushed for its "Belt and Road Initiative", making it a tool to expand its power and influence, buying the participating countries.

Since the mid-2016, Chinese companies announced a total investment of some US$ 20 million in several big seaports abroad. By September 2017, China's companies are the contractor/owner of several seaports in 34 countries.

At the same time, China is increasingly exerting greater control over the South China Sea to make the region its "lake". In addition to its occupation of features by force, China also uses the "cabbage" strategy which coordinates navy, coast guards and fishing vessels (including disguised fishing boats) to intrude into sensitive areas where the "nine-dashed line" overlaps with other coastal states’ EEZs. The most notable incidents are the illegal placement of China's Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig in Viet Nam's EEZ in 2014, the intervention by Chinese Coast Guard to free a Chinese fishing vessel arrested by Indonesian authorities due to its illegal operation near Natuna Islands in March 2016 and the infringement by 100 Chinese fishing vessels into the waters near Luconia Shoal in Malaysia's EEZ in March 2016.

These actions might not lead to a limited war like the case of Gac Ma. The exercise of restrain by other coastal states plays a key factor in preventing tension from escalating into a hot conflict. China's Navy is always in standby mode and ready to combat against any military movements by other countries. Also, China has been considerably consolidating its occupied features in the Spratly, transforming them into dual purpose bases for power projection and shifting the balance of power in the South China Sea.

Yet, under any circumstances, no matter how strong the rival might be, Vietnamese should not be discouraged. Despite China's growing power, there is no doubt that they have to back down in face of a fearless nation. It can be learned from Gac Ma Battle that the courage of the Vietnamese people and naval soldiers should be strengthened so as to lay a solid ground built on the people's trust, contributing to firmly safeguarding national sovereignty at sea./.