Vietnam protest marks Spratly battle anniversary

Hoan Kiem, Hanoi. Source: Wikimedia

Demonstrators have marched in Hanoi to mark the 28th anniversary of a naval battle for the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. They denounced China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

About 150 people donned headbands and carried banners and marched around the lake in central Hanoi, Hoan Kiem, chanting “down with invasive China”. They laid wreaths for the 64 Vietnamese sailors who died in the 1988 fighting for the Spratly islands. Nine Vietnamese engineering soldiers were taken captive.

“I think the government should organise official ceremonies to remember those soldiers who were killed defending Truong Sa and Hoang Sa islands,” said retired civil servant Le Mai Dau, 84, one of the demonstrators.

The small, 90-minute protest was an unusual sight in the one-party state suggesting it had official encouragement.

Although anti-Chinese sentiment is strong among the public, the ruling Communist Party is wary about its relations with the northern giant and makes few references to its crushing defeat of China in its 1979 border war.

The demonstration was over a conflict in the Johnson Reef in the Spratly islands. Accounts of it are unreliable and Vietnam does not officially commemorate the deaths.

Hanoi’s police did not stop the demonstration, which was larger than those last year, including one ahead of China’s President Xi Jinping’s visit to Hanoi last November.

Hanoi’s Foreign Ministry last month accused Beijing of taking action that threatened peace and “accelerate militarisation”. officially.

“That was the first step in China’s plan to militarise the South China Sea,” said activist Nguyen Van Phuong, 29. Although Vietnam’s government condemns China’s occupation, artificial expansion and delivery of military hardware to the Paracel islands and parts of the Spratly archipelago, its responses to Chinese actions are usually understated and often come days after those of other countries. In the last two years China has reclaimed land around the Johnson South Reef to form artificial islands.

China claims almost all of the resource-rich Spratlys. Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts or all of the islands.

China is Vietnam’s most significant trading partner and the communist parties that have run both countries for decades have had close ties, although relations are reportedly under strain.