A Chinese ship embroiled in a standoff with Vietnamese vessels last year has returned to waters near Vietnam, as the US accused China of pushing its presence in the South China Sea while other claimants are preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vietnamese vessels last year spent months shadowing the Chinese Haiyang Dizhi 8 survey vessel in resource-rich waters that are a potential global flashpoint, as Washington challenges Beijing’s sweeping maritime claims.
The ship, which is used for offshore seismic surveys, yesterday appeared again 158km off Vietnam’s coast, within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), flanked by at least one China Coast Guard vessel, according to data from Marine Traffic, a Web site that tracks shipping.
At least three Vietnamese vessels were moving with the Chinese ship, the data showed.
The presence of the Haiyang Dizhi 8 in Vietnam’s EEZ comes toward the scheduled end of a 15-day nationwide lockdown in Vietnam aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.
It also follows the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat near islands in the disputed waters this month, an act that drew a protest from Vietnam and accusations that China had violated its sovereignty and threatened the lives of its fishermen.
The US, which last month sent an aircraft carrier to the central Vietnamese port of Danang, said it was “seriously concerned” about China’s reported sinking of the vessel.
“We call on the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic, and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea,” the US Department of State said in a statement.
The Philippines, which also has disputed claims in the South China Sea, has raised its concerns too.
On Saturday, China’s Global Times, published by the official People’s Daily newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, said Vietnam had used the fishing boat incident to distract from its “ineptitude” in handling the coronavirus.
The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
During the standoff last year, at least one China Coast Guard vessel spent weeks in waters close to an oil rig in a Vietnamese oil block, operated by Russia’s Rosneft, while the Haiyang Dizhi 8 conducted suspected oil exploration surveys in large expanses of Vietnam’s EEZ.
“The deployment of the vessel is Beijing’s move to once again baselessly assert its sovereignty in the South China Sea,” said Ha Hoang Hop, at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
“China is using the coronavirus distraction to increase its assertiveness in the South China Sea, at a time when the US and Europe are struggling to cope with the new coronavirus,” he said.
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