An Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) report gave a blow-by-blow account of “a dangerous ongoing game of chicken” stretching back to last October. The dispute involves navy vessels, coastguard boats, militia vessels, a drill ship called the West Capella and offshore supply ships. The West Capella, contracted by the Malaysian state energy firm Petronas, is at the centre of the stand-off.
AMTI, affiliated to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it made its findings based on the vessels’ automatic identification system (AIS) broadcasts and commercial satellite imagery.
The Washington-based think tank claimed the dispute was brewing for weeks out of the public eye.
It raised questions as to why the two smaller countries were confronting each other instead of putting up a united front against Beijing.
The stand off followed the highly publicised stand-off between Indonesian and Chinese vessels near the Southeast Asian country’s Natuna islands last December.
None of the three countries have publicly commented on the latest dispute.
Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said this week Kuala Lumpur was seeking an agreement with Vietnam to stop “encroachment” of deep-sea fisherman from the Indochinese country into Malaysia’s territorial waters off its east coast.
Malaysia and Vietnam are among the Southeast Asian nations that are challenging Beijing’s claim of almost the entirety of the South China Sea through its so-called nine-dash line boundary.
The two countries made a joint submission in 2009 for a part of the continental shelf in the southern part of the oil and gas rich waters.
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Kuala Lumpur made a further claim for the northern section of the sea late last year.
The latest move drew condemnation from China, which has long maintained that it has “historical rights” to the waters.
The AMTI claimed the latest findings reiterated “the new normal in the South China Sea”.
It said: “New energy development by Southeast Asian states anywhere within the nine-dash line will be met by persistent, high-risk intimidation from Chinese law enforcement and paramilitary vessels.”
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The latest dispute was continuing at the time of the report’s publication, occurring in recent weeks in ND1 and an adjacent block in ND2.
AMTI said: “New energy development by Southeast Asian states anywhere within the nine-dash line will be met by persistent, high-risk intimidation from Chinese law enforcement and paramilitary vessels.”
The think tank referred to a Malaysian oil and gas block in the area for which Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur had submitted a joint claim.
It added: “Vietnamese militia vessels remain on-station monitoring and likely demanding the West Capella halt its work.
“Chinese militia and law enforcement ships continue to approach dangerously close to the rig and supply vessels, creating risks of collision as they have during other oil and gas operations over the last year.
“So far, the Malaysian government appears determined to continue the exploration.
“But China’s response sends a message that actual production of oil and gas in blocks ND1 and ND2 would be prohibitively risky for any commercial actor, including Petronas.”
AMTI claimed China and Vietnam’s motivation’s “seem clear”.
However, the think tank questioned the motivations of Malaysian prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s government.
It said: “The biggest question is why the Malaysian government chose to ignore the spirit of the 2009 joint submission with Vietnam and, in so doing, undermine whatever solidarity Southeast Asian parties might hope to build in their oil and gas disputes with Beijing.”
Among the Chinese Coast Guard vessels that were that involved in the stand-off was the 5,000-tonne Zhaolai-class 5403 , which AMTI described as “one of the most intimidating ships in the Chinese Coast Guard arsenal”.
On the Malaysian side, the navy sent the guided missile destroyer KD Jebat to guard and patrol the area where the West Capella was operating.
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