The Chinese survey vessel, Hai Yang Di Zhi 8, arrived in Malaysian waters along with a supporting Chinese task force on April 16 and is currently surveying an area within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, between the West Capella and Malaysia’s coast.
The Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 is accompanied by China Coast Guard (CCG) and People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia ships. Two CCG ships, the Zhongguohaijing 4203 and 1105, are sailing alongside the Hai Yang. Another CCG ship, the Haijing 5203, has been sailing in and around Luconia Shoals since April 1, apparently securing the area for the Chinese task force.
As of Tuesday morning, the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 was roughly 180 nautical miles from the Malaysian coast – but only 100 nautical miles from the Luconia Shoals, which are claimed by both China and Malaysia in the southernmost part of the South China Sea. On April 17, the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 was also within 200 nautical miles of Indonesia’s Natuna Island.
China has said that the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 is conducting normal activities and has accused U.S. officials of smearing Beijing. That followed State and Defense Department statements strongly critical of China’s recent activities in the South China Sea, particularly the April 2 sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel in a confrontation with a China Coast Guard ship. The US State Department accused China of exploiting nations’ distraction over COVID-19 to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.
The United States responding by sending the USS America, LHA-6 and the Ticonderoga Class cruiser, USS Bunker Hill, CG-52 to the site of the ongoing illegal survey by the Chinese task force in Malaysian waters. The move signals Washington’s support for other countries in the region as China presses its advantage in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
LCDR Nicole Schwegman, spokeswoman for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said, “Through our continued operational presence in the South China Sea, we are working with our allies and partners to promote freedom of navigation and overflight, and the international principles that underpin security and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific.”
In addition to helicopters and Osprey tilt rotor aircraft, the USS America has twenty F-35B jets onboard to defend American interests.
Malaysia’s coast guard last week confirmed that the Chinese survey ship was in Malaysian waters.
Beijing faces diplomatic pushback from some of its Southeast Asian neighbors against its sweeping assertion of sovereignty across the resource-rich sea.
At the weekend, China upped the ante when it announced two new administrative districts for South China Sea and released a new map naming all the islands and reefs it claims in the contested region – though Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have sovereignty claims that overlap with China’s.
The U.S. is using this deployment to remind China and other claimants in the South China Sea that China has no legal basis to economic rights in the area that the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 is operating in.