Playback showing a Vietnamese vessel and a China Coast Guard ship navigating in close proximity in late February. Data: MarineTraffic; Analysis: RFA.

A Dangerous Dance

Chinese, Vietnamese ships stalk each other off Paracel Islands in South China Sea

By Zoe Haver

March. 29, 2021

It was the kind of standoff at sea that would usually slip under the radar: obscure vessels of rival nations vying for position in disputed waters, far from public view.

In late February, Radio Free Asia noticed that two ships — one from the China Coast Guard (CCG), the other from Vietnam — were maneuvering around each other in the South China Sea. Using automatic identification system (AIS) data from a ship-tracking platform and satellite imagery, we followed the vessels for weeks as they danced around waters southwest of the Paracel Islands. We proceeded to reconstruct how the two ships shadowed each other, sometimes for days on end, until mid-March — when a Vietnamese law enforcement ship and a Chinese maritime militia vessel then joined the fray.

China, Vietnam, and Taiwan all claim the Paracel Islands as their own, though China is the only claimant to occupy any features in the archipelago, having pushed Vietnamese forces out of the area in the 1970s. The disputes over these islands and their surrounding waters sometimes turn violent, such as when a CCG ship allegedly rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing vessel last April.

Photograph of the CCG 4203, a Zhaojun-class cutter. Picture:, haiyang yu gongwu chuan zixun.

The latest confrontation began on Feb. 22 when the CCG 4203 approached the Vietnamese vessel, the Benhai 08629, which had been operating about 25 nautical miles to the southwest of China-controlled Triton Island since Feb. 15. The two ships proceeded to continuously maneuver within a few nautical miles of each other until the CCG 4203 left the area on Feb. 25.

But on March 7, the CCG 4203 returned to once again engage the Benhai 08629, which had continued to operate in the same area, roughly 120 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam, after the CCG 4203 left in February. The two vessels were navigating in close proximity — at times appearing to come within one kilometer of each other — until March 16, when the Benhai 08629 returned to port in Vietnam.

Two additional ships appear to have picked up where the Benhai 08629 and CCG 4203 left off. On March 16, a Vietnam Fisheries Resources Surveillance ship, the Kiem Ngu 372, navigated to the same area near Triton Island. A known Chinese maritime militia vessel, the Min Xia Yu 00013, then joined the Kiem Ngu 372 on March 18.

RFA compared AIS data from MarineTraffic, a ship tracking platform, to satellite imagery from Planet Labs to confirm the presence of two ships, likely the Benhai 08629 and CCG 4203, in waters to the southwest of Triton Island on multiple days in February and March.

Map showing the location of the confrontation (left) and the overlapping voyage history of the CCG 4203 and Benhai 08629 from Feb. 22 to Feb. 25 (right). Data: MarineTraffic; Analysis: RFA.

The Benhai 08629 originally sailed out from Da Nang, Vietnam on Feb. 15, reaching its destination on the same day. The CCG 4203 turned off its AIS transponder while at port in Wenchang, China in early February, appearing north of the Paracel Islands on Feb. 19 before sailing down to engage the Benhai 08629 on Feb. 22.

The CCG 4203 is a Zhaojun-class cutter. According to a study from the U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, each Zhaojun-class ship displaces 2,700 tons and is armed with a 76mm canon. MarineTraffic reports that the CCG 4203 is 102 meters long. Satellite imagery confirms that the CCG 4203 is roughly 100 meters in length.

RFA could not verify who owns or operates the Benhai 08629. Likewise, whether the Benhai 08629 is a government patrol ship, a fishing boat, or some other craft remains unclear. Satellite imagery suggests that the vessel is about 60 meters long.

Playback of the Benhai 08629 and CCG 4203 navigating around each other from Feb. 22 to Feb. 25. Data: MarineTraffic; Analysis: RFA.

Satellite image showing what appears to be the Benhai 08629 and the CCG 4203 on Feb. 25. Image: Planet Labs; Analysis: RFA.

This is not the Benhai 08629’s first foray into waters southwest of Triton Island. According to AIS data that RFA reviewed on MarineTraffic, the Benhai 08629 navigated to this area on at least three separate occasions last year, each time remaining in the area for a couple weeks.

Another Vietnamese vessel with a similar name, the Ben Hai 09952, has also operated in these waters. The Ben Hai 09952 had been sailing in the area since mid-January, leaving after the Benhai 08629 showed up. A similar pattern played out last year: the Ben Hai 09952 was in the area from May 5 until June 4, when it left after the Benhai 08629 arrived. According to MarineTraffic, the Ben Hai 09952 is a fishing vessel.

Playback of the Benhai 08629 and CCG 4203 navigating around each other from March 7 to March 16. Data: MarineTraffic; Analysis: RFA.

Satellite image showing what appears to be the Benhai 08629 and the CCG 4203 on March 10. Image: Planet Labs.; Analysis: RFA.

Incidents involving the CCG and other Chinese maritime law enforcement forces have become increasingly common in the South China Sea in recent years.

According to data from the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, 73 percent of major incidents in the South China Sea since 2010 have involved at least one Chinese maritime law enforcement vessel.

Andrew Chubb, a South China Sea expert at Lancaster University, told RFA that “the PRC’s maritime law enforcement activities in the South China Sea really started to intensify from 2007 when they started sending new long-distance surveillance ships on regular patrols there.”

Chubb also noted that two serious confrontations between China and Vietnam occurred near Triton Island in 2007 and 2014, both sparked by Chinese surveying and drilling activities.

With the recent passage of China’s new Coast Guard Law, which formally authorized the CCG to use force against foreign vessels infringing on China’s expansive maritime claims, the CCG’s assertive operations show no signs of stopping.

This article has been updated to modify the byline from Zachary Haver to Zoe Haver.

Playback of the Kiem Ngu 372 and Min Xia Yu 00013 sailing in close proximity on March 19. Data: MarineTraffic; Analysis: RFA.

Web page produced by: Minh-Ha Le
Editing: H. Leo Kim, Paul Nelson, Mat Pennington
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