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An American Navy combat ship this week conducted “routine operations” near a Chinese geological survey ship in the South China Sea.

The maneuvers in waters around the Spratly Islands echoed events off the north coast of Malaysian Borneo in April, when a Chinese survey vessel and a fleet of China Coast Guard (CCG) ships shadowed Malaysian oil exploration efforts, in an apparent bid to deter the smaller nation from exploiting resources in the disputed waters.

“The Chinese Communist Party must end its pattern of bullying Southeast Asians out of offshore oil, gas, and fisheries. Millions of people in the region depend on those resources for their livelihood,” said Adm. John Aquilino.

The West Capella suspended its operations early on May 12, and the Hai Yang 8 left shortly after.

China maintains that any resource exploration in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost entirely, must be done with Chinese partners instead of international companies. Beijing has also taken this position during negotiations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to create a Code of Conduct for governing behavior in the sea’s disputed waters.

On June 13, Spanish company Repsol ceded its stakes in three Vietnamese oil blocks to the state-run oil company, PetroVietnam, citing its inability to work under conditions of a territorial conflict, according to Archyde, a Spanish oil and gas blog. Repsol halted work in those blocks in 2018 due to Chinese pressure.

Two days earlier, Vietnamese state media announced that U.S. company ExxonMobil would invest in Vietnam’s energy sector, after a phone call between Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and ExxonMobil senior executive Irtiza Sayyed. Daniel Kritenbrink, the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam reportedly told VnExpress on June 23 that the U.S. would support commercial energy projects between U.S. companies and Vietnam.

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