Gac Ma, a tiny coral atoll in the South China Sea, is an unlikely place to go down in history as the site of a pivotal battle between Vietnam and China. But this reef was the first of six taken from Vietnam forces by Chinese troops in March - leaving five Vietnamese dead and an estimated 74 missing or captured - in what has since become an escalation of naval forces in a group of islands and reefs called the Spratlys.
The hostilities appear to have created a small rift between Vietnam and its major ally, the Soviet Union, as well as adding a new dimension to the stalemate over Cambodia. Such effects fit China's regional goals and give it a strategic presence in a petroleum-rich and militarily significant waterway.
China's military advance sent shockwaves through Southeast Asia, where there is an historic fear of Chinese expansion and influence. Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and China claim all or portions of the Spratlys.
``The Chinese chose to attack an island where we had just put some troops,'' Vietnamese Gen. Tran Man Cong, editor of All-People's Defense Review, explains about the March 14 incident on Gac Ma. ``The Chinese Navy has been patrolling in the islands since 1986, as far as Malaysia, so we began to move troops to reefs.''
``Now the area is another hotbed for us [in addition to the Chinese border and the Cambodia conflict]. ... Perhaps it could be a war front.''
Both sides have built up naval forces in the disputed area, Jane's Defense Weekly reported in May. China may now have up to 20 warships in the area, while Vietnam has as many as 30.
The Chinese People's Liberation Army Daily said that its sailors were training in the islands. Peking says Vietnam has taken 20 islands or reefs.
One Western diplomat speculates that with the coming of typhoon season this month, Vietnam will be at a military advantage in its proximity to the Spratlys. Lack of air power would hinder Vietnam in defending the islands, Jane's Weekly said.
``Time and again, they might start another March 14 incident,'' General Man says. ``Their tactic is to divide the friendship between Soviet Union and Vietnam, and make it difficult for the Soviets.''
Privately, Vietnamese officials say they were upset by the Soviets' evenhanded concern over the incident, although Moscow has probably provided Hanoi with satellite information on Chinese naval movements. The security treaty between Hanoi and Moscow does not obligate the Soviets to defend Vietnam if attacked.
Both Vietnamese and Cambodian officials believe China is using the incident to pressure Hanoi in case the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia is settled. (China supports Khmer Rouge guerrillas fighting the Phnom Penh regime.)
``This is just one part of China's global strategy [against the Soviets and to control Vietnam],'' Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen says.
``They see that the Kampuchea issue has some light at the end of the tunnel, so they will try to confront Vietnam directly.''
Man points out a military advantage for anyone holding the islands: ``Most ships passing between the Pacific and Indian oceans go between the islands and our mainland. The islands are like an unsinkable battleship. ... China could build up the reefs and threaten Vietnam by placing medium-size missiles there.''
Vietnam has made three official requests for negotiations with China. Peking has refused so far but hinted last month that talks might be possible.