A Chinese government survey ship embroiled in a standoff with Vietnamese vessels moved south near Malaysia, shipping data showed yesterday, amid accusations that China is using the COVID-19 pandemic to assert its presence in the South China Sea.
The Haiyang Dizhi 8 was spotted off Vietnam this week, returning after being closely tracked last year in the resource-rich waters, a potential global flashpoint as the US challenges China’s sweeping maritime claims.
The ship appeared to have started a survey in waters 352km off the coasts of Brunei and Malaysia yesterday, according to data from Marine Traffic, a Web site that tracks shipping.
That appeared to be just north of Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone.
A Malaysian coast guard vessel, the KM Pekan, is shadowing the Chinese ship, a Malaysian maritime source said, declining to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The Haiyang Dizhi 8 had been flanked by as many as seven Chinese coast guard vessels that have since moved away, two sources familiar with the matter said.
The Malaysian navy was monitoring the situation, one of the sources said.
The foreign ministries of Malaysia, Brunei and China did not respond to requests for comment.
On Wednesday, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman had said that the ship was conducting normal activities and accused US officials of using the South China Sea issue to smear Beijing.
The presence of the Haiyang Dizhi 8 in the South China Sea comes amid movement curbs imposed by Southeast Asian countries to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The US Department of State had urged Beijing to focus on combating the pandemic and “stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.”
China’s U-shaped “nine-dash line” on its maps marks a vast expanse of the waters that it claims, including large expanses that are also claimed by Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei.
Earlier this year, Washington think tank the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative said that China has maintained an almost constant presence in Luconia shoals. The shoals are divided into North Luconia Shoals (Beikang Shoal, 北康暗沙) and South Luconia Shoals (Nankang Shoal, 南康暗沙), and also claimed by Taiwan as part of the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島).
Last year, at least one Chinese 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 Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.
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