Johnson South Reef Skirmish

Johnson South Reef Skirmish
Sino-Vietnamese conflicts 1979-1990
Date March 14, 1988
Location Johnson South Reef
  • Chinese naval victory, 6 islands captured by the PLAN
  • Continued dispute between China and Vietnam.
China People's Republic of China Vietnam Vietnam
Commanders and leaders
Chen Weiwen/陈伟文, CO 502 Nanchong Deputy Brigadier Tran Duc Thong
Le Lenh Son, CO HQ-605
Vu Phi Tru, CO HQ-604
Vu Huy Le CO HQ-505
*502 Nanchong / 南充 (Jiangnan Class/065) frigate
  • 556 Xiangtan / 湘潭 (Jianghu II Class/053H1) frigate
  • 531 Yingtan / 鹰潭 (Jiangdong Class/053K) frigate
*HQ-505 (ex Quy Nhon HQ-504)landing ship
  • HQ-604 armed transport
  • HQ-605 armed transport
Casualties and losses
Chinese claim: 1 wounded.

Western source: 6 killed, 18 wounded[citation needed]

more than 70 killed[1]
40 captured[citation needed]
HQ-604 and HQ-605 sunk,[2] HQ-505 heavily damaged

The Johnson South Reef Skirmish of 1988 (Vietnamese: Hải chiến Trường Sa?; Chinese: 赤瓜礁海战; pinyin: Chìguā jiāohǎi zhàn) was a naval battle that took place between Chinese and Vietnamese forces over Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands on March 14, 1988. It has also been mistakenly referred to as the Battle of Fiery Cross Reef.



On January 21, 1988, the Yibin arrived at the Spratly Islands and on January 31, People's Liberation Army Navy troops were detected at Johnson South Reef. Vietnamese forces were rushed into the area to prevent them.

On February 22 and on March 5, PLA-N frigates Nanchong, Xiangtan and Yingtan were dispatched as reinforcements to the area while the Vietnamese dispatched their own forces on March 11 from Ba Son naval yards in Ho Chi Minh City.


Name (English) Name (Vietnamese) Name (Chinese) Latitude Longitude
Johnson South Reef Đá Gạc Ma Chigua Jiao / 赤瓜礁 90 45' N 1140 18' E
Johnson North/Collins Reef Đá Cô Lin Guihuan Jiao / 鬼喊礁 90 45' N 1140 14' E
Lansdowne Reef Đá Len Đao Qiong Jiao / 琼礁 90 46' N 1140 22' E


The People's Republic of China's Account

The PRC's accounts reported the skirmish as follows:

On March 13, the Nanchong detected PAVN vessels HQ-604 heading toward Johnson South Reef, HQ-605 heading toward Lansdowne Reef, and HQ-505 heading toward Collins Reef in a simultaneous three-pronged intrusion upon the disputed reefs.[2]

On March 14, PLA-N forces led by Yingtan arrived at Johnson South Reef and disembarked 25 naval infantrymen: the Nanchong already onsite disembarked a further 33 naval infantrymen in support. The Xiangtan was dispatched to Lansdowne Reef to counter the intrusion there.[citation needed]

At approximately 07:30 hours on Johnson South Reef, Vietnamese troops attempted to erect the Vietnam flag on the reef. It was reported that PAVN Corporal Nguyen Van Lanh and PAVN Sublieutenant Tran Van Phuong disputed the flag against PLA-N sailor Du Xianghou resulting in pitch battle between the two opposing forces. Vietnamese forces, with HQ-604 in support, opened fire[2] in response. PLA-N forces and the Nanchong counter-attacked at 08:47 hours: HQ-604 was set ablaze in the firefight and sunk. [2] in the same morning was fought[clarification needed] between the Yingtan and HQ-505 which was beached at Collins Reef. The subsequent firefight resulted in the loss of the PAVN vessel, HQ-505.

At 09:15 hours, the Xiangtan arrived at the Lansdowne reef and discovered 9 Vietnamese troops from HQ-605 had already landed. The Xiangtan immediately hailed the Vietnamese forces demanding their withdrawal from the reef and was met with Vietnamese fire in reply.[2] In the ensuing firefight, the HQ-605 was damaged heavily and sunk by the Chinese.[2]

Other account

In vol. 1 of the book The security environment in the Asia-Pacific, written by Hung-mao Tien, a Taiwanese scholar, and Tun-jen Cheng, an American Professor reported the skirmish as follows: In late 1987, PRC started to deploy troops to some unoccupied reefs of the Spratly Islands. Soon after the PLA stormed the Johnson South Reef, a skirmish began between the Vietnamese troops and PRC landing parties on March 14, 1988. Within a year, the PLA took over seven reefs and rocks of the Spratly Islands.[3]


In 1994 China had a similar infringement at the Mischief Reef which was at that time inside the EEZ of the Philippines. However, there was only political protest from the Philippines since, according the Henry L. Stimson Center, the Philippine Navy decided to avoid confrontation, a decision that was partly based on the Johnson South Reef Skirmish where Vietnamese troops were killed despite the conflict taking place near the Vietnamese-controlled area.[4]


  1. ^ FACTBOX-The South China Sea's disputed maritime borders
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Secrets of the Sino-Vietnamese skirmish in the South China Sea, March 14, 1988",
  3. ^ Cheng, Tun-jen; Tien, Hung-mao (2000). The Security environment in the Asia-Pacific. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe. pp. 264. ISBN 0-7656-0539-2. 
  4. ^ Cronin, Richard P. (2010-02-04). "China’s Activities in Southeast Asia and the Implications for U.S. Interests". 


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