China has begun a new deep sea survey in the South China Sea, near the Taiwan-occupied feature of Pratas, ship-tracking software shows.
The Hai Yang Di Zhi 9, a research and survey vessel affiliated with China’s State Oceanic Administration and China’s marine geological survey agency, entered waters approximately 40 nautical miles southwest of Pratas on June 10. Its back-and-forth path in the area since then strongly suggests it is conducting a survey.
It is the latest in a series of undersea surveys by China across the disputed South China Sea in recent weeks. The Hai Yang 9 is within the same series of ships as the Hai Yang Di Zhi 4, which entered Vietnamese waters this past weekend, as well as the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8, which surveyed in Malaysian waters from mid-April to mid-May.
A spokesperson for Taiwan’s coast guard did not explicitly confirm knowledge of the presence of the Hai Yang 9 near Pratas when asked about it by RFA. But the spokesperson, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said that beyond 24 nautical miles is an economic zone where all ships could have freedom of navigation, and that the coast guard does not have radar to monitor beyond 42 nautical miles.
Pratas, which is alternately called Dongsha by both China and Taiwan, is claimed by both governments but occupied by Taiwan, and its surrounding atoll is considered a national park. It’s roughly 250 miles south of the main island of Taiwan.
Notably, China included Pratas within one of two administrative districts it unilaterally declared for the South China Sea in mid-April to the chagrin of other claimants, who dispute Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty over virtually the entire area.
This not the first time the Hai Yang 9 has surveyed the area, which lies not far from the Paracel island chain.
In July 2019, the ship arrived near Pratas and began a survey to the atoll’s south, east, and northeast. It left that same month. The new survey resumes where last year’s survey left off, suggesting that the Hai Yang 9 is undertaking a complete exploration of the waters and seabed around Pratas. Its reason for doing so remains unclear.
Lt. Gen. (ret.) Chip Gregson, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs and now an advisor to the Washington, D.C.-based Global Taiwan Institute, said intrusive marine surveys are China’s way of exercising its “de facto” control over the South China Sea. However, there is no obvious explanation for why the survey has resumed now, he said.
“One can only speculate on the reasons, but perhaps a little foreign adventure is a good way to turn attention from domestic issues, such as the coronavirus,” Gregson said.
Taiwan is one of six claimants in the South China Sea, occupying its largest natural feature, Taiping Island, as well as Pratas. Taiwan is a self-governing, democratic island but China considers it to be a renegade province and part of its territory.
While both the People’s Republic of China and the Taiwan-based Republic of China hold claims to almost the entirety of the South China Sea, the two governments have diverged in recent years on their approach to the issue.
China has brooked no compromise. It has sent survey vessels to harass countries out of exploring for resources within their own waters. It maintains that any resource exploitation in the South China Sea, even within the exclusive economic zones of other countries, must be done with Chinese companies.
In contrast, Gregson said Taiwan has in recent years actively sought to cooperate or play-down its maximalist claims to the disputed waters. Taiwan presented a “South China Sea Peace Initiative” in 2015 that offered to partner with other claimants for resource exploration, even in areas it claims, and ignore territorial disputes for the time being.
“The organizing principle behind this initiative is to separate the resource issues from the territorial claim issues,” Gregson said. “It’s actually a great way to achieve a badly needed objective – eliminating the very damaging overfishing in the South China Sea. At the same time, the bone-deep territorial differences are ‘shelved’.”
To this end, Taiwan signed an agreement with the Philippines in 2017 to cooperate on law enforcement in disputed waters and combat illegal fishing.
China is the worst offender when it comes to illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, according to the 2019 IUU Fishing Index.