On the same day as a call between the defense ministers of Malaysia and China, a Chinese survey ship Friday left the site of a controversial pressure campaign in Malaysian waters that at one point drew Malaysian, Australian, and U.S. warships into the South China Sea.
The Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 survey vessel had been operating for the past month in the vicinity of a Malaysian-contracted drillship, the West Capella, in what was widely seen as an attempt to pressure Malaysia to stop oil exploration in waters China claims – even though it was operating within Malaysia’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Vessel tracking software shows the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 sailing out of the area on Friday morning – just three days after the West Capella ceased its operations and sailed back to the Bay of Brunei. The escort force of China Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militia ships sent with the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 have now dispersed to other parts of the South China Sea.
The West Capella had been exploring for resources within Malaysia’s continental shelf and in parts of a joint Malaysia-Vietnam claimed zone in the South China Sea. The drillship held a contract to continue its activities through May 20, but its operator confirmed on May 12 that it had finished its work and left.
The subsequent departure of the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 coincided with a call by Chinese defense minister General Wei Fenghe and his Malaysian counterpart Ismail Sabri Yaakob. They discussed a “mutual interest in the regional and international security challenges, including the South China Sea,” according to a Malaysian Defense Ministry statement. Ismail also expressed “his gratitude to the medical aid sponsored by China” as Malaysia deals with the COVID-19 pandemic within its borders, it said.
The statement made no mention of the one-month-long presence of the Chinese survey ship in Malaysian waters and its departure on Friday.
The Hai Yang Di Zhi 8’s survey was one in a series of provocative actions by China to assert its sweeping maritime claims to the South China Sea. It sparked a series of responses from the United States. U.S. and Australian warships participated in a joint exercise near the site of the survey on April 18, and the U.S. sent its littoral combat ships nearby the West Capella on three separate occasions, the most recent being May 12.
The U.S. naval presence did not apparently reassure Malaysia, which monitored the situation with its own navy but also released a statement on April 22 calling on all parties not to send more coastguard and warships into the area, as it “may affect peace, security and stability in the region.”
Malaysia is one of five governments with territorial claims in the South China Sea that overlap with those of China, which claims virtually all of it. The others are Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam