A Chinese survey vessel on Thursday commenced survey operations within Malaysia and Brunei’s exclusive economic zone, vessel tracking software shows, in the latest sign of Beijing’s expansive reach across the contested South China Sea.
The Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 left China’s Hainan Island last week, and was spotted earlier this week moving through Vietnam’s waters towards Malaysia. On Thursday it was located at an area roughly 190 nautical miles from the coast of Malaysia’s Sarawak state and Brunei.
The vessel is moving back and forth over a patch of water, which is a tell-tale sign that it has begun to survey the area. China and Brunei have agreed in the past to joint exploration over energy resources in Brunei’s part of the South China Sea, but it was not immediately clear if the current activities could be part of that deal.
Technically, a research vessel would need to request permission before operating within another country’s exclusive economic zone. The Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 is accompanied by at least six escort vessels belonging to the China Coast Guard (CCG), according to vessel tracking data analyzed by RFA.
That is reminiscent of its excursion into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in July 2019, near the disputed area of Vanguard Bank. Those survey activities appeared aimed at pressuring a Russian oil exploration vessel out of the area and sparked a months-long standoff with Vietnamese coast guard vessels.
This time, the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 is operating just past a part of the South China Sea jointly delimited between Malaysia and Vietnam, which may serve to avoid another confrontation with Vietnam. Notably, this survey activity is very close to where the West Capella, a Malaysian-contracted drillship, was working in October.
The West Capella was eventually tracked by a combination of CCG, Chinese maritime militia, and Vietnamese maritime militia ships, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. At least one CCG ship accompanying the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8, the Zhongguohaijing 1105, is now right where the West Capella was last reported.
RFA could not detect Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency ships in the area of the Chinese survey ship on Thursday. A Malaysian offshore patrol vessel KM Pekan was last seen on Wednesday near a CCG ship patrolling the Luconia Shoals, which lies to the south, but it has now left the area.
Neither Malaysian nor Bruneian officials could immediately be reached for comment late on Thursday.
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.