Malaysian navy vessels, Chinese ship reported in South China Sea standoff
Published on: Thursday, November 26, 2020
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The Asia Maritime Transparency Institute reported that a Chinese ship had harassed a drilling rig and its supply ships last week. (Reuters pic)
PETALING JAYA: The China Coast Guard (CCG) and Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) are reportedly involved in a standoff over hydrocarbon exploration 44 nautical miles off the coast of Sarawak in the South China Sea.

The incident comes after two weeks of increasing tensions between the navy and the CCG in the area.

According to a report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Institute (AMTI), the “CCG 5402” ship harassed a drilling rig and its supply ships on Nov 19, and the navy responded by deploying a vessel that continued to tail the ship.

Citing automatic identification system (AIS) data from marine traffic and satellite imagery from Planet Labs, the report said the CCG ship left Hainan on Oct 30 for what has become a standard Chinese patrol route.

It first stopped at China’s island bases on Subi and Fiery Cross Reefs before taking up station at Luconia Shoals in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone on Nov 2.

On Nov 10, the ship patrolled the oil and gas blocks west of Luconia Shoals, passing the Sapura Constructor, an offshore construction ship in the area.

RMN’s Bunga Mas Lima, a naval auxiliary ship that had left Sabah a day earlier, arrived at Luconia Shoals hours later and shadowed the ship for a few days. Its AIS broadcasts were spotty during this period, but satellite imaging from Nov 13 showed the ships were just three nautical miles apart.

On Nov 12, the CCG ship headed 40 nautical miles east of Luconia Shoals for a quick patrol before returning to its post.

The report said the ship appeared to have been attracted by the arrival of a new jackup rig, Borr Drilling’s Gunnlod, which had been towed to its location in block SK410B just days earlier and is exploring for natural gas under a contract with Thailand’s PTT Exploration and Production.

The ship returned to the area on Nov 19 and came to within two nautical miles of the rig.

At just over 40 nautical miles from Sarawak, AMTI said this is the closest to shore they had ever documented such Chinese activity.

The Bunga Mas Lima continued patrolling the area and remained near Luconia Shoals for another two days.

Within hours, however, the RMN deployed a second ship, the more capable KD Keris, which steamed straight from Sabah to the Gunnlod. The Keris stayed near the rig for about a day before following the CCG ship back to Luconia Shoals.

The two ships manoeuvred around each other there for several days. When CCG 5402 went for another patrol to the west of Luconia Shoals on Tuesday, the Keris followed.

As of yesterday, the Gunnlod remained on site at block SK410B and the CCG ship has not returned.

AMTI said that recent history suggested that China could escalate the standoff with further deployments, but noted it might also de-escalate in recognition that harassment of drilling operations so close to Malaysian shores is a significant provocation.

FMT has reached out to the defence ministry and foreign affairs ministry for comment.


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