HANOI – A Chinese survey ship which has been embroiled in a tense month-long standoff with Vietnamese vessels has headed away from Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a Washington-based think tank said on Wednesday. Since early July this year, Vietnamese ships have closely tracked Chinese vessels operating within the Southeast Asian country’s EEZ, in the latest confrontation in waters that are a potential global flashpoint as the United States challenges China’s sweeping maritime claims.

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“Ship tracking data show that China’s survey ship has exited the Vietnamese EEZ for now, but at least two of its coast guard escorts remain in the area of the survey,” Devin Thorne, senior analyst at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) told Reuters, citing data from maritime analytics company Windward.

“Vietnamese ships pursued Haiyang Dizhi 8 as it returned to Fiery Cross Reef and now appear to be loitering just outside of Vietnam’s EEZ,” Thorne added.

Fiery Cross Reef is a man-made island, controlled by China, built on a disputed South China Sea reef, to which Vietnam and the Philippines have competing claims.

It was not clear late on Wednesday if China’s Haiyang Dizhi 8 survey vessel planned to return to Vietnam’s EEZ, Thorne said.

The survey ship, operated by the China Geological Survey, has been conducting what appears to be seismic survey of Vietnam’s offshore oil blocks, according to the Windward data. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has criticised Chinese “coercion” in the disputed South China Sea, while Beijing’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, said last week that maritime problems involving Vietnam should not interfere with two-way ties.

The offshore impasse has stoked anti-China sentiment in Vietnam, where previous tensions between Beijing and Hanoi over the disputed waters have erupted into protest.

Last week, a Vietnamese fishermen’s group urged the government to take stronger measures to remove the ships, saying they were disrupting fishing activities.

And on Tuesday, Vietnamese police broke up a brief demonstration outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi against the operations of the vessel and its escorts.

Also on Tuesday, the Philippines, which is also embroiled in maritime disputes with Beijing, said its president Rodrigo Duterte would meet Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping soon to discuss a 2016 arbitration case over the South China Sea.

That ruling in international law invalidated China’s claim, based on its so-called “nine-dash line”, to historic sovereignty over most of the busy and resource-rich waterway.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines. China has since occupied Sandy Cay which was previously been under close watch by Philippine navy men and now it appears that Duterte ordered the AFP to withdraw and stop further patrols in the area which resulted to China slowly occupying Sandy Cay as it slowly accumulates sand brought about by its dredging activities nearby in Subi Reef.

Should China controls Sandy Cay and builds structures there then this would be a fatal security issue since this is very close to Pag Asa island and should China change the feature and build an island out of it then this would put Pag Asa island under its direct soverengithy overlapping territorial control over our territorial seas.

“..Apparently, because of China’s dredging in Subi Reef, pulverized corals drifted and gathered at Sandy Cay and made it permanently above water at high-tide. As a high-tide elevation, Sandy Cay is now land or territory capable of sovereign ownership with its own territorial sea and territorial airspace..” – Associate Justice Carpio

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