Oh no they didn't ... did they?
Get out your tin-foil hat, because this is about to get weird.
When the Chinese survey vessel Xiang Yang Hong 10 spent nearly a month in Vietnam's oil and gas fields last May-June, the question in many minds was, "What exactly are they doing?"
The survey ship was escorted by an unusually heavy screening force of China Coast Guard and maritime militia ships, and it didn't follow the systematic "lawnmower pattern" normally used for hydrographic surveys of the sea floor. We were all left to wonder what was being accomplished besides an especially brazen illegal survey in another country's internationally recognized exclusive economic zone.
This is the hydrographic survey pattern we normally see ...
... and this is what the Xiang Yang Hong 10 flotilla was doing.
An assertion of sovereign jurisdiction certainly was in Beijing's mind, as it sent out its spokesperson to declare:
"China has sovereignty over Nansha Islands and its adjacent waters and sovereign rights and jurisdiction over relevant waters. It is legitimate and lawful for relevant Chinese vessels to carry out normal activities in waters under China’s jurisdiction. There is no such a thing as entering in other countries’ exclusive economic zones."
But ... why the strange pattern?
The following month I spoke with a Vietnamese foreign policy official and asked why it took Hanoi 10 days before it made any public protest over the highly provocative incursion. The official said that Vietnam's government couldn't figure out what China was doing. The survey pattern made no sense.
Maybe we all should have studied Mandarin.
Then last month, in the excellent New York Times feature article "Fleets of Force", Agnes Chang and Hannah Beech pointed out a fact that escaped me (a non-Mandarin speaker) but now seems ... um, strikingly apparent: "The paths the vessels took created the character 中, which is the first character in the Chinese word for 'China.'"
Oh, no they didn't ... did they?
I understand that there's a short connecting line on the right side of the pattern that seems to be missing, but still ... what other explanation is there? Was that line left out to provide a veneer of deniability? If so, it worked--no one seemed to make the connection at the time.
Just so you know, I don't like this explanation. I feel like a conspiracy theorist just suggesting it, and I'm completely open to some other reasonable explanation ... but this is the only plausible one I've seen.
This entire episode may well have been an even bigger "middle finger" from the Middle Kingdom to Vietnam than we realized at the time.
The survey pattern seemed to say, "Property of China."