US, Chinese warships enter South China Sea as tensions rise over oil dispute

A months-long standoff between Chinese and Malaysian vessels in disputed waters in the South China Sea over oil exploration has drawn US, Chinese and Australian warships, according to reports.

The high-stakes drama began in December when Malaysia’s state oil company Petronas contracted a ship to explore waters in the country’s extended continental shelf that are also claimed by China and Vietnam, according to Bloomberg News.

Those two countries dispatched ships to shadow the Malaysian vessel.

On April 16, the Chinese surveyor Haiyang Dizhi 8 entered the fray while accompanied by a Coast Guard ship sent by Beijing, prompting the US and Australia to deploy warships to the area, Reuters reported.

The standoff was the culmination of continued harassment by Chinese vessels of drilling operations in five oil blocks off the Malaysian coast in the past year, Greg Poling, head of the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, told Reuters.

Chinese forces have been harassing ships servicing the West Capella, the oil surveyor operated by Petronas, since December, Poling told the news outlet.

On Thursday, the Haiyang Dizhi was still within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, about 209 miles off Borneo, according to data from ship tracking website MarineTraffic.

Three American warships and an Australian frigate this week held a joint exercise in the South China Sea near where the West Capella was operating, officials and security sources said.

The area is near waters claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia and China.

Beijing has denied reports of a standoff, saying the Haiyang Dizhi was conducting normal activities.

Malaysia on Thursday said it was committed to safeguarding its interests in the South China Sea.

“While international law guarantees the freedom of navigation, the presence of warships and vessels in the South China Sea has the potential to increase tensions that in turn may result in miscalculations which may affect peace, security and stability in the region,” Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said.

He added that Malaysia maintained “open and continuous communication” with all relevant parties, including China and the US.

Washington has called on Beijing to stop “bullying tactics” in the South China Sea and accused China of meddling in the disputed area while other claimants are preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic.

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