by Reuters: A Chinese research ship and five escort vessels were in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) close to gas blocks operated by Russian firms in the South China Sea on Friday, a day after Vietnam urged the ships to leave.
According to Ray Powell, who leads Stanford University’s Project Myoshu on the South China Sea, the Chinese vessel Jiang Yang Hong 10 began operations in Vietnam’s EEZ on May 7, representing the most significant incursion since 2019.
He said that China’s conduct and Vietnam’s response was a “worrying escalation”.
China claims most of the energy-rich waters of the South China Sea, including areas that fall within Vietnam’s EEZ.
The 2019 standoff lasted more than three months and largely targeted a block operated by Russian state oil firm Rosneft (ROSN.MM). Less than two years later, Rosneft sold its assets in the South China Sea to Zarubezneft, the Russian state-owned firm that operates some of the gas fields currently in dispute.
According to vessel-tracking data, in the past weeks since May 7, the Chinese research ship, at times surrounded by a dozen vessels, has been moving largely to gas block 04-03, a joint venture between Zarubezneft and PetroVietnam. Operated by Joint Venture. Shared with Reuters by the South China Sea Chronicle Initiative (SCSCI), an independent non-profit.
It is also regularly drilling blocks 132 and 131 that Vietnam has licensed to Vietgazprom, a joint venture between Russia’s giant Gazprom (GAZP.MM) and PetroVietnam. China has launched competitive bids to license those two blocks.
The three companies and the Russian embassy in Hanoi did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Responding to a question about the standoff, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said that China has sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and its surrounding waters, and has jurisdiction over the relevant waters.
“China’s relevant ships carry out normal activities in China’s jurisdiction. This is legal and lawful, and there is no issue of entering other countries’ exclusive economic zones,” he told a regular press conference.
Mao said China has maintained communication with relevant parties on the issue and looks forward to working with them to “jointly safeguard the peace and stability of the South China Sea”, adding that China will “certainly shall protect (his) legitimate rights and interests”.
According to Powell, on Thursday, when Vietnam issued a rare public statement demanding the ships leave, they were in Block 129, also operated by Vietgazprom. The statement came after a visit to Hanoi on Monday by Dmitry Medvedev, former President of Russia and deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council.
Powell said two Vietnamese fishing vessels were shadowing Chinese vessels at a distance of 200-300 meters on Friday, noting the Chinese vessels had moved to a block adjacent to one operated by Russian firms.
Under international rules, ships are allowed to cross other countries’ EEZs, but China’s operations have long been viewed as hostile by Vietnam and other countries with claims in the South China Sea, including the Philippines and Malaysia.