KUALA LUMPUR • An Australian frigate has joined three United States warships in the South China Sea near an area where a Chinese vessel is suspected to be exploring for oil, near waters also claimed by Vietnam and Malaysia.
The warships arrived this week close to where the Chinese government survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 has been operating, which is in turn near where a vessel operated by Malaysia's state-oil company Petronas is conducting exploratory drilling, regional security sources have said.
The US navy said on Tuesday that the USS America amphibious assault ship and the USS Bunker Hill, a guided missile cruiser, were operating in the South China Sea.
They were joined by Australia's frigate HMAS Parramatta and a third US vessel, the destroyer USS Barry, as part of a joint exercise, the Australian defence department said yesterday.
"During the passage exercises, the ships honed interoperability between Australian and US navies, including replenishment-at-sea, aviation operations, maritime manoeuvres and communications drills," it said in a statement to Reuters.
The Haiyang Dizhi 8 was 325km off the Malaysian coast, within its exclusive economic zone, data from ship-tracking website Marine Traffic showed yesterday.
The ship, accompanied by a Chinese coastguard vessel, has been moving in a hash-shaped pattern consistent with a seismic survey for nearly a week, the data showed.
The area is near waters claimed by both Vietnam and Malaysia, as well as China.
China claims most of the energy-rich South China Sea, within a U-shaped "nine-dash line" on its maps, a line which is not recognised by its neighbours.
Petronas and Malaysia's Foreign Ministry have not commented on the situation, but the US has called on China to stop its "bullying behaviour" in the South China Sea.
China, however, has denied reports of a stand-off, saying the Haiyang Dizhi 8 was conducting normal activities.
Last year, Vietnamese vessels spent months shadowing the Haiyang Dizhi 8.
It appeared off Vietnam again last week, within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. Vietnam said it was closely monitoring the situation.
The US has accused China of pushing its presence in the South China Sea while other claimants are preoccupied with the coronavirus.
On Sunday, Vietnam protested after China said it had established two administrative districts on the Paracel and Spratly islands in the disputed waters. China has called Vietnam's claims illegal.