Chinese Survey Vessel Returns to Disputed Vietnamese Waters

map of the South China Sea showing disputed waters

Published Apr 15, 2020 9:12 PM by The Maritime Executive

A Chinese survey vessel has returned to Vietnamese waters, reigniting hostilities between the two nations after a series of confrontations over the last year.

The Chinese seismic vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 has sailed 158 kilometers (98 miles) off Vietnam’s coast supported by six Coast Guard vessels and two other vessels. The group are being observed by several Vietnamese vessels.

Vietnam is currently in lockdown due to COVID-19, and the U.S. has accused China of increasing its presence in disputed waters in the South China Sea while other nations are pre-occupied with the pandemic.

However, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry said during a daily news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday that the ship was conducting normal activities in waters administered by China.

The new dispute follows the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat in South China Sea waters on April 2. Ten fishermen onboard a wooden boat were rescued by nearby vessels after it was rammed about 12 miles from an oil rig. Vietnam says that Chinese vessels guarding the oil rig have also damaged 24 Vietnamese law enforcement vessels and 12 other fishing vessels since May last year.

A U.S. Department of State’s spokesperson said that the U.S. was concerned by the incident which occurred in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands. “This incident is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea...

“We call on the PRC to remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.”

An article in China’s Global Times indicated that Vietnam was using the fishing boat sinking to distract from its “ineptitude” in handling the COVID-19 crisis. However, Vietnam has only reported around 250 cases, with no deaths.

In July last year, China sent the survey vessel into parts of Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone, and Coast Guard vessels sailed near a rig operated by Rosneft in Vietnamese waters.