Vietnam has unveiled a large memorial to 64 sailors who were killed defending a contested reef in the Spratly Islands from Chinese forces in 1988.
The official commemoration of the clash – nearly three decades after the event – underlines Vietnam’s growing defiance of China’s claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
The monument features an “eternal circle” to represent the Vietnamese troops who were cut down by Chinese gunfire as they formed a ring around the Vietnamese flag on the partially submerged reef.
Vietnamese vessels had landed the men on Johnson South Reef, known as Gac Ma in Vietnam, as Chinese gunboats closed in. The two sides were at the time engaged in a scramble for territory on the sprawling islets and reefs of the Spratly chain, some of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
Funds for the monument, in the coastal district of Cam Lam between Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay, were raised by the official trade union movement, a proxy for the Communist party.
A representative said the memorial was a symbol of patriotism and the resilient spirit of the army and people of Vietnam.
He spoke of the need for national solidarity to safeguard the country’s independence and sovereignty.
Veterans and family members of the dead servicemen have marked the anniversary of the clash each year in March, but there has been no officially sanctioned memorial until now.
Vietnam has tended to downplay past conflict, anxious not to stir up anti-Chinese sentiment despite continuing tensions between the two sides in the South China Sea.
The Communist party leadership in Hanoi, however, may now feel the need to signal that it puts territorial integrity – and the sacrifice of its armed force – above ties with its Communist party comrades in Beijing.