The China Coast Guard (CCG) and Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) are involved in another standoff over hydrocarbon exploration in the South China Sea. China Coast Guard ship 5402 harassed a drilling rig and its supply ships operating just 44 nautical miles from Malaysia’s Sarawak State on November 19. Malaysia deployed a naval vessel in response, which continues to tail the 5402. The incident seems to have followed two weeks of increasing tensions between the CCG and RMN in the area. An analysis of AIS data from Marine Traffic and satellite imagery from Planet Labs reveals this high-stakes game of chicken that would otherwise have remained under the radar.
CCG 5402 left Hainan on October 30 for what has become a standard Chinese patrol route. It stopped at China’s artificial island bases on Subi and Fiery Cross Reefs before taking up station at Luconia Shoals in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone on November 2. CCG ships have maintained a nearly constant presence there in recent years, facilitated by the nearby logistics hubs in the Spratlys. On November 10, the 5402 patrolled the oil and gas blocks west of Luconia Shoals, passing by the Sapura Constructor, an offshore construction ship operating in the area. The RMN’s Bunga Mas Lima, a naval auxiliary ship that had left Sabah a day earlier, arrived at Luconia Shoals hours later and shadowed the 5402 for at least a few days. Its AIS broadcasts were spotty during this period, but a satellite image from November 13 shows the ships just 3 nautical miles apart.
On November 12, the 5402 headed 40 nautical miles east of Luconia Shoals for a quick patrol before returning to its post. It seems to have been attracted by the arrival of a new jackup rig, Borr Drilling’s Gunnlod, which had been towed to that location just days earlier and was being serviced by two offshore supply ships: the Lewek Plover and JM Abadi. Satellite imagery from November 18 shows the rig and JM Abadi operating undisturbed.
The Gunnlod is operating in block SK410B, exploring for natural gas under a contract with Thailand’s PTT Exploration and Production (PTTEP). The company made its largest ever discovery a few miles south of the Gunnlod’s current location in 2019. The 5402 returned to the area on November 19 and approached to within 2 nautical miles of the rig, presumably warning it to cease operations as the CCG has in other recent cases involving Malaysian and Vietnamese offshore drilling.
At just over 40 nautical miles from Sarawak, this is the closest to shore AMTI has ever documented such Chinese harassment. The Bunga Mas Lima was still patrolling the area and would remain near Luconia Shoals for another two days. But within hours the RMN deployed a second ship—the more capable KD Keris, which steamed straight from Sabah to the Gunnlod. Ironically, the Keris is the first of a new class of littoral mission ships built for Malaysia in 2018 by a subsidiary of China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation. The Keris stayed near the rig for about a day before following the 5402 back to Luconia Shoals. The two ships maneuvered around each other there for several days. When the 5402 went for another patrol to the west of Luconia Shoals on November 24, the Keris followed.
As of November 25, the Gunnlod remains on site at Block SK410B and the 5402 has not returned. Recent history suggests China could escalate the standoff with further deployments. But it might also deescalate, recognizing that harassment of drilling operations so close to Malaysian shores is a significant provocation. And this comes at a particularly sensitive time for Kuala Lumpur, with the shaky government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin facing a potential no-confidence vote next week when it presents its annual budget to Parliament.