This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Multiple Chinese survey ships have intruded into the exclusive economic zones of other South China Sea claimant states since the United States last week resolved to help safeguard the resource rights of Southeast Asian nations facing pressure from China.
Vessel tracking data and satellite imagery analyzed by RFA shows six survey vessels owned directly or indirectly by the Chinese government are currently in the South China Sea: the Hai Yang Di Zhi 12, the Hai Yang Di Zhi 4, the Tan Suo 1, the Tan Suo 2, Shiyan-1, and the Shen Kuo.
Some of the deployments began several weeks ago, but several of the ships have entered into the waters of neighboring countries in the days since Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a strongly worded statement July 13, where he declared most of China’s maritime claims in the disputed South China Sea to be illegal. That marked an escalation of the war of words between the two world powers as their relations deteriorate.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Tuesday accused Beijing of engaging in “systematic rule-breaking, coercion and other malign activities.” He was speaking at an online forum hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
The Hai Yang Di Zhi 12 and 4 are in service with China’s geological survey agency, under the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources. The Hai Yang 12 commenced a survey close to the disputed Scarborough Shoal on July 15, two days after Pompeo stated that China “cannot lawfully assert a maritime claim” to the waters around the feature since it sits within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf. As of Tuesday morning, the ship was about 50 nautical miles from Scarborough Shoal, accompanied by China Coast Guard (CCG) ship 3102.
The Hai Yang 4 appears to have been in or near Vietnam’s EEZ for the past month. It entered on June 16, and has come and gone since then, but was back in place around July 16 and was inside the EEZ on July 17, vessel tracking data shows.
Meanwhile, another survey ship, the Shen Kuo was roughly 100 nautical miles off the coast of Sabah, Malaysia, on Tuesday morning, data shows, and about 80 nautical miles from the coast of the Philippines. That ship is a deep-sea scientific research vessel owned and operated by Shanghai-based Rainbow Fish Ocean Technology Co., Ltd.
The Shiyan-1 has been conducting a survey over a broad swathe of the Paracel Islands, an archipelago of rocks and reefs in the northern half of the South China Sea, according to ship-tracking data. After leaving Guangzhou on June 25, the survey ships came within 141 nautical miles of the Philippine coastline on July 6, and came within 100 nautical miles of Vietnam’s coast on July 16. Since that time, it’s appeared to have started a survey straddling nearly 330 nautical miles across the Paracels.
The Shiyan-1 is operated by the institute for underwater acoustics, within the Chinese Academy of Sciences, according to the International Maritime Organization database. Notably, it was expelled from the Eastern Indian Ocean by India’s navy back in December 2019 under suspicion of mapping the topography of the ocean floor for military purposes.
Other Chinese survey vessels are currently in disputed waters in the South China Sea but have not yet entered any country’s EEZ. The Tan Suo 1 and Tan Suo 2, both operated by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Deep-sea Science and Engineering, are currently just south of the Paracels. The Tan Suo 1 arrived there on July 9, with the Tan Suo 2 joining it on July 17.
The United States has struck a more strident tone on the South China Sea issue in the past week, shifting from its previous established position and calling China’s expansive maritime claims “unlawful” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and under a landmark 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration award in a case brought by the Philippines against China.
The U.S. has also said China’s claims violate the rights of Southeast Asian nations to explore for resources within their borders.
On Tuesday, Esper said that the Chinese Communist Party “has bullied ASEAN nations out of an estimated 2.6 trillion dollars in potential offshore oil and gas revenue, and not to mention fishing grounds that millions of people depend on for their livelihoods.” ASEAN refers to the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes South China Sea claimants Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
He also noted China’s recent military exercises in the South China Sea, saying China’s armed forces were simulating an “island seizure” campaign. Last week, the People’s Liberation Army drills involved JH-7 anti-ship fighter-bombers deployed to Woody Island, one of China’s largest artificial islands and its main military base in the Paracels area.
Chinese state media has intimated that those exercises were in response to recent drills in the South China Sea by two U.S. aircraft carriers, the first such drill in at least four years.
The Chinese government has responded sternly to recent U.S. diplomatic statements and its military maneuvers with allies, accusing Washington of being a “destroyer of regional peace and stability.” At the same time, China has played up its recent efforts to negotiate with other South China Sea claimants.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks with his Philippine counterpart last Wednesday. “Both sides reaffirmed that contentious maritime issues are not the sum total of the Philippines-China bilateral relationship,” a statement from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said.
And on Tuesday, Vietnam and China held talks where they discussed the South China Sea and agreed to step up negotiations over a Code of Conduct, according to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The code under negotiation between ASEAN and China that would govern behavior in the South China Sea. It is set to be finished in 2021, although progress has been delayed and set-back multiple times.
One obstacle to meeting that deadline is that China frequently sends coastguard and survey vessels into the waters of its neighbors, in areas where it insists on having sovereignty over. This is widely seen as a ploy to assert Beijing’s sweeping maritime claims and prevent other nations from exploring for oil and gas unless in partnership with China.
Japan protested a Chinese survey near Okinotorishima on Monday according to the Associated Press, stating it did not give permission to the vessel to operate in the area.
China owns and operates the largest fleet of survey ships in the world, and launched a new addition to the “Shiyan-series” of deep sea research vessels this past weekend, called the Shiyan-6.