A Chinese survey ship on Thursday commenced operations within Malaysia and Brunei’s exclusive economic zone, according to a vessel tracking software, in the latest sign of Beijing’s expansive reach across the contested South China Sea.
The Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 left China’s Hainan Island last week, and was spotted earlier this week moving through Vietnam’s waters toward Malaysia. On Thursday it was located at an area around 190 nautical miles (352 km) from the coast of Malaysia’s Sarawak state and Brunei.
The vessel moved back and forth, a tell-tale sign that it was exploring the area. China and Brunei have agreed in the past to a joint exploration over energy resources in Brunei’s part of the South China Sea, but it was not immediately clear if the current activities could be part of that deal.
Technically, a research vessel would need to request permission before operating within another country’s exclusive economic zone, experts said. The Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 was accompanied by at least six escort vessels belonging to the China Coast Guard (CCG), according to vessel tracking data analyzed by Radio Free Asia (RFA), an online news service affiliated with BenarNews.
That was reminiscent of its excursion into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in July 2019, near the disputed area of Vanguard Bank. Those survey activities appeared aimed at pressuring a Russian oil exploration vessel out of the area and sparked a months-long standoff with Vietnamese coast guard vessels.
This time, the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 was operating just past a part of the South China Sea jointly delimited between Malaysia and Vietnam, which may serve to avoid another confrontation with Vietnam.
The survey activity was very close to where the West Capella, a Malaysian-contracted drillship, was working in October. The West Capella was eventually tracked by a combination of CCG, Chinese maritime militia, and Vietnamese maritime militia ships, according to the Washington-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
At least one CCG ship accompanying the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8, the Zhongguohaijing 1105, was spotted Thursday in the same area where the West Capella was last reported.
Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency ships could not be detected in the area of the Chinese survey ship on Thursday. A Malaysian offshore patrol vessel, KM Pekan, was last seen on Wednesday near a CCG ship patrolling the Luconia Shoals, which lies to the south.
Neither Malaysian nor Bruneian officials could immediately be reached for comment Thursday.
Beijing claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims in the sea region.
Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines have directly disputed China’s expansive claims in diplomatic notes in recent weeks. China has also been criticized by the United States, which says Beijing is exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to expand its “unlawful claims” in the South China Sea.
Reported by RFA, an online news service affiliated with BenarNews.