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Chinese Ship Returns Near Vietnam Border

In the Vietnamese city of Da Nang, the sun rises over the South China Sea, which has overlapping claims by Vietnam, China, the Philippines and Malaysia.

A Chinese ship was back in the part of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam, days after China sank a Vietnamese fishing boat — adding to fears that Beijing might use the coronavirus pandemic to distract from its maritime maneuvers.

The ship, Haiyang Dizhi, returned to Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone before 6 p.m. Vietnam time Tuesday, according to Marine Traffic, a commercial service that tracks vessels and cargo.

The biggest source of tension between the two nations has long been the disputed South China Sea, which the United States considers one of the most likely sites in the world for a future military skirmish.

The Chinese ship's arrival threatens to escalate tensions after the sinking of the Vietnamese vessel on April 2.

The Haiyang Dizhi is the same ship that spent months last year seeming to explore Vietnam's oil-rich part of the sea. Vietnamese ships tailed the vessel for months around the exclusive zone, until it left in October.

Vietnam appeared to be rid of the Haiyang Dizhi problem, until this week. The Vietnamese government did not immediately comment on the arrival of the ship, which China sent less than two weeks after it sunk a Vietnamese boat with eight fishermen on board. The fishermen returned to safety.

The United States has accused China of using the COVID-19 "distraction" for a maritime advantage.

"We call on the PRC (People's Republic of China) to remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea," said Morgan Ortagus, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State.

This week's ship incursion marks another apparent attempt by China to gain an edge in the sea while the world is busy with the pandemic, some Vietnamese citizens say.

"The Chinese are taking advantage of the opportunity that Vietnam is focusing on fighting the Wuhan Virus to carry out a plot to steal territory," Le Cam said on Facebook, referencing the Chinese city where the coronavirus was first identified.

FILE - A billboard in front of the Ho Chi Minh City skyline reminds residents of Vietnam’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. (Ha Nguyen/VOA)
FILE - A billboard in front of the Ho Chi Minh City skyline reminds residents of Vietnam’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. (Ha Nguyen/VOA)

For its part, China says it is defending its territory. The Global Times, a newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, said Vietnam is using South China Sea tensions to "shift the spotlight from the recent domestic pressure and its ineptitude in handling" COVID-19.

A Vietnamese government official called the claim laughable and worthy of a satirical comedy.

China has been criticized for withholding information that could have helped the world curb the pandemic sooner.

Human Rights Watch China Director Sophie Richardson blasted "the shocking death tolls, fear, and uncertainty that people across China have endured from the coronavirus."

Despite the toll that COVID-19 has taken on China's population, economy and foreign reputation, the nation wants to show it is strong, analysts say. They agree that China's recent sea maneuvers are meant to show that the virus will not weaken its claim to the sea, parts of which are also claimed by Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan, in addition to Vietnam.

"China does not want to appear weak and invite claimant states or outside states to change the status quo in the South China Sea," said Carlyle Thayer, professor at the University of New South Wales Canberra.

According to Marine Traffic, the Haiyang Dizhi has departed from Vietnamese-claimed waters. As of Wednesday, the ship's whereabouts are unknown.