China Attempts to "Intimidate" its Neighbors' Offshore Drilling Rigs

CCG hull number 35111 (file image via social media)

Published Jul 17, 2019 8:46 PM by The Maritime Executive

According to a new analysis from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), the China Coast Guard has recently deployed vessels to monitor oil and gas drilling in Vietnamese and Malaysian waters of the South China Sea - often at unusually close range. 

AIS data analyzed by AMTI shows that in May, the CCG vessel Haijing 35111 took up a patrol near the Shell-chartered drilling rig Sapura Esperanza, which is working on a lease block in the South Luconia Shoals region about 100 nm off Sarawak. The block is well within the Malaysian EEZ, but like almost all of the South China Sea, the Luconia Shoals are claimed by Beijing under its sweeping "nine dash line" policy. 

For two weeks in mid-May, the Haijing 35111 operated in the vicinity of the Esperanza and the rig's offshore supply vessels, the Executive Courage and Executive Excellence. In at least one encounter, the Haijing approached to within 80 meters of the OSVs - a behavior that ASPI characterized as "highly provocative." Previous open-source reports have indicated that the Esperanza's operations were hampered by the CCG vessel's maneuvers. 

In mid-June, after a brief resupply run, the Haijing 35111 transited to the other side of the South China Sea to monitor activity in Vietnamese lease area Block 06-01, which lies well within Vietnam's EEZ (and is also claimed by China). 

Block 06-01 is a productive E&P area, and one of its gas fields supplies about 10 percent of all of Vietnam's energy consumption. Russian oil major Rosneft holds the rights for the block, and since 2018 it has drilled two new wells in the area, despite Chinese warnings to stay away. 

In May, Rosneft began drilling another well in Block 06-01 with the chartered Japanese rig Hakuryu-5. The Haijing 35111 took up a patrol station near the rig on June 16, transiting at close range during normal operations and resupply evolutions. On July 2, the Haijing sailed past two OSVs near the rig at a range of about 100 meters in an "apparent effort to intimidate them," ASPI said. 

In addition, a Chinese survey vessel recently began acquiring seismic data in an area just to the northeast of Block 06-01, within the Vietnamese EEZ. On Sunday, two Vietnamese Coast Guard vessels attempted to approach the survey ship, but they were warded off by three China Coast Guard escort vessels. 

"The situations at both Block 06-01 and around China’s ongoing oil and gas survey are fluid and dangerous. Given the close quarters and provocative behavior on display, there is a clear risk that an accidental collision could lead to escalation," ASPI warned.