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Cluster of Chinese vessels spotted near Russian rig off Vietnam

FILE PHOTO: A China Coast Guard vessel patrols at the disputed Scarborough Shoal April 5, 2017. Picture taken April 5, 2017 (REUTERS)
FILE PHOTO: A China Coast Guard vessel patrols at the disputed Scarborough Shoal April 5, 2017. Picture taken April 5, 2017 (REUTERS)

A Chinese research vessel accompanied by two coast guard ships and 11 fishing boats entered a gas block operated by Russian and Vietnamese state firms, sparking concern among monitoring groups and raising tensions in the already tense South China Sea.

The move by Beijing on Wednesday follows a pattern of assertive behaviour in the region as it presses its claim to sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, a claim disputed by several other countries.

The Chinese group entered block 04-03 of Vietsovpetro, a venture between Russia's Zarubezhneft and PetroVietnam, and was still in the area by nightfall, according to data from two independent vessel monitors analysed by Reuters news agency,

The group was also close to blocks 05-1 B and 05-1 C, operated by Idemitsu Oil & Gas, a unit of Japan's Idemitsu Kosan.

The move was described by an expert at Stanford University's Project Myoushu on the South China Sea as "extraordinary" due to the large number of militia and coast guard ships involved.

The expert suggested that it seemed to be a message from China about its jurisdiction over Vietnam's oil and gas operations.

“It seems they are sending a message about China’s jurisdiction over Vietnam’s oil and gas operations,” Ray Powell said, adding at least three Vietnamese fisheries surveillance vessels had moved close to the Chinese ships.

This is not the first time that China has been accused of using its coast guard and fishing boats as a militia to intimidate and disrupt energy activities in the South China Sea. The incident has raised concerns among several countries in the region and comes at a time of heightened regional tensions.

China's foreign ministry said that the activities were "normal" and that Chinese vessels were carrying out "normal production and work activities in maritime areas under China's jurisdiction."

Such moves by China are seen as testing the United States and its allies in the region, who have been working to counter China's growing influence.

Additional reporting by agencies