A Chinese government-owned survey vessel appears to have been sent into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, vessel-tracking data shows, in a move that could stir more tensions in the South China Sea.
Two separate vessel-tracking tools showed the Hai Yang Di Zhi 4 traveling towards Vietnamese waters on Sunday, passing by the Chinese military base at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. It was last detected Tuesday morning, just within 200 nautical miles of Vietnam’s coast and roughly 182 nautical miles from the Vietnamese island of Phú Quý.
China is known for sending survey vessels into other countries’ waters to assert what it considers its right to search for resources in the vast South China Sea. China claims nearly the entirety of the South China Sea, a stance that has never been supported by international law. Five other governments have territorial claims there.
Last July, another Chinese survey vessel, the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8, provoked a months-long standoff with Vietnam at Vanguard Bank – close to where the Hai Yang Di Zhi 4 is now -- in an attempt to stop Russian-owned oil exploration activity within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, or EEZ.
An EEZ extends 200 nautical miles from the coast. It is where a country has sole rights to explore resources but must allow free passage to shipping.
It wasn’t immediately clear why the Hai Yang 4 has been deployed in the area now. Neither the government of China or Vietnam has commented on it, although non-government South China Sea watchers in Vietnam have been tracking the ship this week and posting about its movements online.
China and Vietnam have increasingly been at loggerheads in recent weeks over the South China Sea. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry last week objected to China’s recent laying of undersea telecommunication cables between disputed features in the Paracel Islands, describing it as a violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty.
Also last week, a Vietnamese fishing vessel was reportedly chased and rammed by a Chinese ship near the Paracels Islands. In the meantime, a Vietnamese coastguard vessel is currently in the Union Banks area of the Spratly Islands, where there is a large Chinese maritime militia presence and military outposts occupied by both countries.
Ship-tracking software shows that the Hai Yang 4 survey ship left Huangpu, in China’s Guangdong province, last Wednesday. According to its listing with the International Maritime Organization’s registry, it is operated by the Guangzhou Marine Geological Survey, which is part of China’s Ministry of Natural Resources. China’s geological survey agency also lists a ship named the Hai Yang Di Zhi 4 on its website, and notes its past work in polar expeditions.
Often the China Coast Guard (CCG) accompanies survey ships but the Hai Yang 4 appears to be traveling alone on its current mission, although a CCG ship, Haijing 5202, is in harbor at Fiery Cross Reef near its last reported location.
The Hai Yang 4’s deployment may be related to Vietnam’s oil exploration activity in its waters with international partners – which is what precipitated the Vanguard Bank stand-off between China and Vietnam last year.
There have been indications that oil exploration could be imminent about 215 nautical miles southwest of the ship is now, at an oil block off Vietnam’s southeastern coast licensed by Russian company Rosneft.
According to Vietnamese state media, the Clyde Boudreaux oil rig, operated by the U.K.-based Noble Corporation, was due to operate there. It was towed to Vietnam’s port at Vung Tau on April 22 but has yet to leave port, according to vessel-tracking software.
China has a track record of pressuring international oil companies out of working with Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea.
Between mid-April and mid-May, the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 conducted a survey in Malaysian waters that appeared intended to pressure the West Capella, a Malaysian-contracted drillship that was operated by a London-based company. The West Capella eventually left the area.
On Saturday, Spanish oil company Repsol decided to transfer its shares in three oil exploration blocks off Vietnam’s southeastern coast to Vietnam’s state oil company, PetroVietnam, citing the inability to drill in the area after both it and Vietnam came under pressure by China in 2018. Vietnam at the time ordered Repsol to halt drilling days before its oil rig was set to leave port.
U.S. oil company ExxonMobil reportedly expressed interest in Vietnam’s gas and oil sector during a call with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on June 11, according to Vietnamese state-run media.