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South China Sea Surveys Pressure Claimants, Mine Info With Military Use

According to the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, China’s government owns 25 survey vessels, more than twice that of the United States, and even more are owned and operated by Chinese universities and research centers with close affiliations to the government.
(The path of Chinese survey ships near the Taiwanese occupied atoll of Pratas, shown by MarineTraffic ship-tracking software, June 22, 2020. The current survey by the Hai Yang 9 appears to be a continuation of a survey started last year in the same area. Imagae: RFA Graphic)

China has increased its tempo of deep sea surveys in the South China Sea, worrying claimant states and other nations. Experts say that the mapping of the sea floor is a pressure tactic in disputed waters and could help China’s Navy in monitoring submarine traffic.

China has the world’s largest fleet of research and survey ships. This year alone, RFA has detected Chinese surveys off the coasts of Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines. India is also reportedly concerned about what China portrays as benign research activity, after a Chinese survey ship operated late last year in the Eastern Indian Ocean.

Collin Koh, a research fellow with the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said meteorological, geophysical, acoustic, hydrographic and other scientific information collected from such surveys are “dual-use.”

“The same data that contributes to the furtherance of mankind’s knowledge of the marine environment contributes to national security purposes, especially military planning,” he said.

The Survey Fleet

According to the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, China’s government owns 25 survey vessels, more than twice that of the United States, and even more are owned and operated by Chinese universities and research centers with close affiliations to the government.

For example, the Hai Yang-series of research vessels are directly operated by China’s Geological Survey agency. One such survey ship, the Hai Yang Di Zhi 9, is currently performing a survey around the entirety of Pratas atoll, a feature in the South China Sea’s northeast that is occupied by Taiwan.

The Hai Yang 9 commenced its survey on June 10, and was still working in the area as of Monday – picking up from a survey it conducted in the same location last July. The survey comes at a particularly sensitive time, as China is in the midst of military exercises that will, at one point, reportedly simulate the seizure of Taiwan’s outlying islands – including Pratas.

China claims the island of Taiwan as part of historic Chinese territory, despite the fact that it has been self-governing since 1949.

Meanwhile, the Hai Yang 9’s sister ships are operating close to other claimants in the South China Sea.

Last week, China sent the Hai Yang Di Zhi 4 into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, likely in response to the threat of Vietnam renewing oil exploration in waters both Vietnam and China claim.

“It is difficult to know for sure,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with RAND Corp, a U.S. think tank. “But given the route Hai Yang Di Zhi 4 is on at the moment, combined with planned oil exploration at the disputed Block 06-01, it would be unsurprising if the two events were related.”

On June 17, the survey ship was approximately 147 nautical miles from Vietnam’s coast – that’s more than 50 nautical miles within its exclusive economic zone. By Monday, however, the Hai Yang 4 had left Vietnam’s EEZ, and it was unclear whether it will continue with a survey.

Nevertheless, its brief presence may have been enough to communicate the message that Beijing won’t let oil exploration to go ahead without incident. An internationally-operated oil rig set to operate in Vietnam’s waters this month, the Clyde Boudreaux, is still sitting idle in the Vietnamese port of Vung Tau.

According to Grossman, this is a near-repeat of last year, when the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 performed a highly controversial survey in Vietnam’s EEZ, triggering a months-long standoff with Vietnam. It then did a survey this year within Malaysian waters from mid-April to mid-May – an episode that prompted the U.S. Navy to patrol the area and for U.S. officials to publicly criticize Beijing.

Both of those surveys appeared aimed at pressuring international companies out of exploring for resources with other claimants in the South China Sea.

Koh said this is part of Beijing’s long-standing position on who has rights to resources in the South China Sea. Beijing insists all oil and gas exploration in the area – including within other countries’ EEZs – must be done with Chinese partners.

Koh said that where China can’t exploit resources by itself and “where joint development isn’t forthcoming,” it will instead try to simply stop other countries from exploring for themselves — especially in disputed waters or borderline areas.

Last week, Spanish oil company Repsol sold its shares in three Vietnamese oil blocks back to Vietnam’s state oil company – largely because it had to halt operations two years ago, after taking on pressure from China.

“Through intimidation tactics, Beijing has, at times, been successful at scaring international companies out of continuing their exploration activities,” Grossman said.

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