China has sent a survey vessel involved in a standoff with Vietnam last year back into that nation’s exclusive economic zone this month, vessel-tracking data shows, in a move likely to fuel tensions between the two countries over their rival claims in the South China Sea.
Vietnamese vessels are closely trailing the survey vessel, which is accompanied by a host of China Coast Guard (CCG) ships. The deployment comes less than two weeks after a Vietnamese fishing boat sank in a confrontation with a CCG ship near the disputed Paracel Islands, which prompted international criticism of Beijing.
“What is pretty obvious is China’s not going to stop,” Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in Washington, said of China’s recent expansionist activities despite the worldwide coronavirus outbreak. “If a global pandemic doesn’t cause China to calm things down in the South China Sea, there’s not much that will.”
The Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 survey vessel left port at Sanya on China’s Hainan Island last Thursday, and was joined by six CCG ships on Monday – numbered 1105, 1006, 2103, 5901, 4201 and 4203 – before they together sailed south into the South China Sea, according to ship-tracking data analyzed by RFA.
As of Tuesday morning local time, the fleet was about 92 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam’s Binh Dinh province, well within that nation’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. They were also accompanied by two Chinese maritime militia ships, the Dongtongxiao00235 and the Min Xia Yu 00013.
It is unclear if this is the fleet’s final destination. But Vietnam appears to be taking no chances. The group was being trailed closely by at least three vessels from Vietnam’s Fisheries Resource Surveillance agency. One ship, the Kiem Ngu 314363, was sailing right alongside the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 as of Monday.
Vietnam’s government has yet to comment publicly on China’s action, but the situation and composition of China’s fleet is reminiscent of past confrontations between Vietnam and China in the South China Sea.
The Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 was at the heart of the tense standoff over Vanguard Bank in July 2019. Vanguard Bank is a feature occupied by Vietnam in the South China Sea – but China sent the Hai Yang along with coast guard escorts to put pressure on a Russian-owned oil exploration activity within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. This prompted Vietnam to send its own coast guard and maritime militia vessels to the area.
The standoff didn’t end until November 2019, and was called the worst flare-up in Vietnam-China relations since the 2014 standoff over the Hai Yang Shi You 981 oil rig. In that incident, China dropped an oil rig into disputed waters and subsequently protected it using a combination of coastguard and maritime militia vessels.
This pattern of using survey vessels to intimidate Vietnam explains the large escort China has deployed alongside the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8.
‘Go out, assert rights, harass neighbors’
The current deployment comes after China’s Foreign Ministry asserted China’s claim to the Paracel and Spratly Islands, calling a March 30 submission by Vietnam to the U.N. over its own territorial rights “illegal and invalid.”
The Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 was previously conducting surveys southeast of Hainan and northwest of the Paracels between April 6 and April 8.
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.
In addition to Vietnam, China has also been exerting pressure recently on Malaysia and the Philippines in the South China Sea. As RFA reported last week, China Coast Guard ships have been patrolling nearly all the hotspots disputed between Beijing and Manila, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s attempts to foster closer ties with China.
The U.S. military has been carrying out freedom of navigation flights and sailing missions throughout the disputed sea region since last year, as part of a deterrent force. Washington has also assured the Philippines and other regional allies that it was prepared to back them up in the case of Chinese aggression.
But Poling, the U.S.-based maritime analyst, said tougher action was needed. “The number one thing that we should think to look into is international economic sanctions,” he told the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines in an online news conference.
“We have never had a discussion about sanctioning the actors behind the Chinese maritime militia. China admits it has a maritime militia, and it’s a clear violation of international law,” he said.
Last week, the Philippines last week joined Vietnam and the U.S. in criticizing China over the April 2 sinking of the Vietnamese fishing boat. Manila’s foreign office said it stood in solidarity with Hanoi over the incident that occurred in waters near the Paracel Islands – which both Beijing and Hanoi claim.
Poling said that incident followed the same pattern as the sinking last year of a Filipino boat that was rammed by a Chinese fishing vessel. That left 22 Filipino fishermen stranded at sea for hours. A Vietnamese boat that was passing by later picked them up.
“They (China) are operating on the same policy framework which is go out, assert rights, harass neighbors, do whatever you want,” he said.