Disputes involving China and other Asian countries bordering the South China Sea have been commonplace in the past several years, usually over China’s claim of sovereignty over the entire sea against the regional claims of each country’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

Now, Malaysia has entered the fray but instead of it teaming up with another country against China, they seem to be directing their attention toward Vietnam.

All the while, China’s 5,000-tonne Zhaolai-class 5403 vessel, described by the Washington-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) as “one of the most intimidating ships in the Chinese Coast Guard arsenal,” lurks in nearby waters.

According to AMTI, there is a dangerous aquatic game of chicken (where two vessels run at each other and collide if neither of them turns away) going on between enforcement, militia and civilian vessels.

The AMTI data was obtained from the broadcast of the automatic identification system (AIS) from each vessel along with commercial satellite imagery. AMTI admits this only gives a partial picture with more vessels likely involved in the two-month standoff.

South China Sea
A Chinese coast guard vessel (left) is followed by a Vietnamese coast guard ship (right) near the area of China's oil drilling rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea, May 14, 2014. Getty Images/AFP/HOANG DINH NAM

The West Capella, a drillship operated by London-managed Seadrill and contracted to Petronas, a Malaysian state energy firm, is taking center-stage during the stand-off. Also involved are a myriad of other ships including several China Coast Guard (CCG) armed vessels and at least three Malaysian ships, one a guided-missile destroyer, Jebat, and Vietnamese fishing boats.

It began in October 2019 when the West Capella began operating in an oil and gas block off the coast of Malaysia’s Sabah State.

That got the attention of two CCG ships, one the Zhaolai-class 5403 vessel, that circled closely around the West Capella. This was presumably an unscheduled side trip taking time off from escorting a Chinese fishing fleet into Indonesian waters, which later provoked a very public standoff with Indonesia.

Since then the AMTI has picked up many ship movements that seem to be reactions and counterreactions around oil and gas blocks and Malaysian-Vietnamese “joint defined areas.”

None of the three countries have publicly commented except for Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, who said this week that Kuala Lumpur was seeking an agreement with Vietnam to stop the “encroachment” of deep-sea fisherman from their country into Malaysia’s territorial waters off its east coast.

The 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” and called it “the new normal in the South China Sea." Any dispute between Malaysia and Vietnam seems limited to fishing areas.