The Malaysian coast guard confirmed Friday the presence of a Chinese survey ship that vessel-tracking software shows is operating close to an exploration vessel contracted by the Malaysian state oil company Petronas. The survey activity is just inside the nation’s exclusive economic zone.
The Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 left China’s Hainan Island last week, and was spotted earlier this week moving through Vietnam’s waters, before arriving Thursday off the coast Malaysia’s Sarawak state and Brunei. Its deployment is the latest sign of Beijing’s expansive reach across the contested South China Sea.
“It is in Malaysian waters and our duty is to remain in the area and monitor its movement,” Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) Director-General Mohd Zubil Mat Som said.
“I do not know of its purpose but it has not done any activities that break the laws,” he added.
Under international law, a research vessel would need to request permission before operating within 200 nautical miles of a country’s coast -- an area commonly referred to as an exclusive economic zone. Mohd Zubil referred a question about whether the Chinese vessel was within that limit to Malaysia’s National Security Council.
The foreign ministries of Malaysia and Brunei did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Vessel-tracking tools show the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8, accompanied by China Coast Guard (CCG) escort ships, was within 200 nautical miles of Malaysia’s Sarawak state on Friday. After briefly entering Bruneian waters on Thursday, it sailed west and began survey activities near the West Capella, the Petronas-contracted exploration ship. Back in October, the West Capella also attracted the attentions of CCG ships in a nearby area.
On Friday, vessel-tracking software showed that two CCG ships, the Zhongguohaijing 1105 and 4203, were sailing alongside the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8.
A Malaysian security source denied reports that the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 was being shadowed by Malaysian vessels. The official was not authorized to comment on the matter and so requested anonymity.
But the source confirmed what vessel-tracking tools indicate – that one MMEA vessel has been patrolling in the vicinity in recent days. On Wednesday, that vessel, the KM Pekan, was at the Luconia Shoals, which lies to the south of where the Chinese survey ship is now. As of Friday it had sailed further away in a westerly direction.
Prolonged standoff in 2019
Last year, the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 was at the center of a prolonged standoff between China and Vietnam at another disputed area, the Vanguard Bank. In that case, survey activities appeared aimed at pressuring a Russian oil exploration vessel out of the area. The Chinese vessel is currently is operating just outside a Vietnam-Malaysia jointly delimited zone, part of the South China Sea claimed by both Vietnam and Malaysia.
In a report released Thursday, the Washington, D.C.,-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said that China operates more research and survey vessels than any other country, and that there is little to distinguish between those engaged in purely civilian research and those doing so on behalf of the military.
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.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Wednesday that the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 was conducting normal activities and accused U.S. officials of smearing Beijing, Reuters reported.