HANOI, April 14 (Reuters) - A Chinese survey ship that was embroiled in a standoff with Vietnamese vessels last year in the disputed South China Sea has returned to waters within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), ship tracking data showed on Tuesday.
Beginning last July, Vietnamese vessels spent months shadowing the Chinese Haiyang Dizhi 8 survey vessel in resource-rich waters that are a potential global flashpoint as the United States challenges China’s sweeping maritime claims.
On Tuesday, the ship, which is used to conduct offshore seismic surveys, could again be seen 158 km (98 miles) off Vietnam’s coast flanked by at least one China Coast Guard vessel, according to data from Marine Traffic, a website that tracks shipping.
At least three Vietnamese vessels were moving with the Chinese ship, according to Marine Traffic data.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a request from Reuters for comment.
The presence of the Haiyang Dizhi 8 in Vietnam’s EEZ comes towards the scheduled end of a 15-day nationwide lockdown in Vietnam designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
It also follows the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat near islands in the disputed waters, an act that drew a protest from Vietnam and accusations that China had violated its sovereignty and threatened the lives of its fishermen.
The United States, which last month sent an aircraft carrier to the central Vietnamese port of Danang, said it was “seriously concerned” about China’s reported sinking of the vessel and urged it to instead focus on global efforts to fight the coronavirus.
The Philippines, which also has disputed claims in the South China Sea, has raised its concerns too.
Vietnam and China have for years been at loggerheads over the potentially energy-rich waters, called the East Sea by Vietnam.
China’s U-shaped “nine-dash line” on its maps marks a vast expanse of the waters that it claims, including large parts of Vietnam’s continental shelf where it has awarded oil concessions.
“The deployment of the vessel is Beijing’s move to once again baselessly assert its sovereignty in the South China Sea,” said Ha Hoang Hop, at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
During last year’s standoff, at least one China Coast Guard vessel spent weeks in waters close to an oil rig in a Vietnamese oil block, operated by Russia’s Rosneft while the Haihyang Dizhi 8 conducted suspected oil exploration surveys in large expanses of Vietnam’s EEZ. (Reporting by Khanh Vu and James Pearson Editing by Robert Birsel)