Updated December 13, 2019
The Chinese survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 along with its coast guard and paramilitary escorts left Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone on October 23, ending a standoff with Vietnamese ships that began more than four months earlier. The de-escalation seems to have been in response to the departure a day earlier of the drilling rig Hakuryu 5 from Vietnam’s oil and gas Block 06-01, which is operated by Russia’s Rosneft.
The standoff began on June 16 when a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship started harassing the Hakuryu 5 and the offshore supply vessels servicing it. Automatic Identification System (AIS) data shows that several CCG ships were deployed in succession to keep up the harassment over the course of the standoff, including the 35111, 45111, 4203, 3308, 5303, and 2305. As ships were relieved, they often traveled to the Chinese outpost on Fiery Cross Reef to resupply before either joining the escort mission around the Haiyang Dizhi 8 or heading back to China.
Exactly how many Chinese and Vietnamese vessels were involved in these two related operations over the course of the standoff is unclear. Those broadcasting AIS—mostly the CCG—almost certainly account for just a small percentage of the total number. Some Vietnamese law enforcement vessels had broadcast AIS during the early weeks of the standoff in July, but soon ceased doing so. In October, Vietnamese Major General Nguyen Minh Hoang announced that 50 Vietnamese and 40 Chinese vessels were involved, while others reported as many as 80 Chinese participants.
Only a few opposing ships seem to have been regularly deployed around the Hakuryu 5 throughout the standoff, suggesting that most of these reported vessels were busing escorting the Haiyang Dizhi 8 or, in the case of the Vietnamese, trying to block its operations. A satellite image from late August captured a Vietnam Fisheries Resource Surveillance vessel positioned between the Hakuryu 5, which was being serviced by an offshore supply vessel (identified via AIS as the Crest Argus 5), and CCG ship 5303. The 56-meter Vietnamese vessel is effectively unarmed and less than half the size of the 138-meter 5303, one of China’s advanced Type 818 Zhaoduan-class cutters which sports a 76-mm cannon.
The Hakuryu 5 broadcast AIS only sporadically during the standoff. Its signal was last seen in Block 06-01 on October 17 and then again in port at Vung Tau, Vietnam, on October 26. This lends credence to social media reports that it had left Block 06-01 on October 22 after completing its drilling work. AIS data shows that the last CCG vessel assigned to the area, the 31302 (since renamed the 2305) left the same day heading north. It joined up with the Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escorts a day later and together the group returned to Hainan.
As for the Haiyang Dizhi 8, it moved north after the first few weeks of the standoff, extending its survey over a much wider area for the next three months. In hindsight, it is clear that the survey area closely matched a group of oil and gas exploration blocks that the China National Offshore Oil Corporation unsuccessfully offered up for foreign bidding in 2012.
Over the course of the standoff, the Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its CCG escorts made multiple resupply trips to Fiery Cross Reef. While ultimately unsuccessful in persuading Vietnam to halt Rosneft’s drilling work in block 06-01, China’s operations demonstrated that its Spratly outposts now allow it to conduct extended pressure campaigns, increasing the costs and risks for its neighbors to operate within the nine dash line.
Published July 16, 2019
Twice in the last six weeks, the same China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel has harassed oil and gas operations by its neighbors in contested waters on opposite sides of the South China Sea. A Chinese state-owned vessel, meanwhile, has been undertaking a seismic survey of oil and gas blocks off the Vietnamese coast. This risks a confrontation between the contingent of CCG and militia boats escorting the survey ship and a group of Vietnamese vessels dispatched to the area. The situation also reveals a double-standard: Beijing appears to be committed to preventing new unilateral oil and gas activities by its neighbors anywhere in the “nine-dash line,” which demarcates its claims in the South China Sea, even as it explores and exploits hydrocarbons in contested waters.
On the Trail of Haijing 35111
CCG vessel Haijing 35111 spent late May patrolling waters near Luconia Shoals off the coast of Malaysia’s Sarawak State. While there, it attempted to prevent the operations of the Sapura Esperanza drilling rig, according to previously unverified reports that emerged on social media a month later. These reports were accompanied by compelling images of the 35111 in close proximity to the rig. Subsequent Chinese blog posts, since removed, backed up these reports and claimed that a second ship, Haijing 46302, was also engaged in the operation around the Sapura Esperanza. While AMTI cannot confirm the presence of the 46302, publicly available Automatic Identification System (AIS) data, which most oceangoing vessels over 300 tons are required to broadcast, indicates that the 35111 was operating in the area and engaged in highly provocative behavior toward other vessels.
Since 2013, China has maintained a near-constant coast guard presence around Luconia Shoals, most of which are underwater at high-tide but still claimed as islands by Beijing and Taipei. They lie on the Malaysian continental shelf, surrounded by oil and gas reserves that Malaysia has tapped for decades. China’s patrols are often centered on Luconia Breakers, which is the only part of the shoals that likely contains dry land. That remains a matter of debate, but if true, it would mean Luconia Breakers generates its own 12-nautical-mile territorial sea.
From May 10 to May 27, AIS broadcasts by the Haijing 35111 show that it was heavily patrolling the area around Luconia Breakers, including part of oil and gas block SK 308. That block is licensed to Sarawak Shell, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell. Sapura Drilling recently said it had won a contract for the Sapura Esperanza rig to drill a series of new wells at natural gas field F14, one of three fields Sarawak Shell is developing in block SK 308.
AIS signals also show that two Malaysian offshore supply vessels, the Executive Excellence and Executive Courage, spent all of May traveling back and forth between block SK 308 and the coast of Sarawak, apparently servicing the Sapura Esperanza. On May 21, the Haijing 35111 circled provacatively close to the vessels, coming to within 80 meters. This data supports the social media reports concerning the 35111’s harassment of the Sapura Esperanza and shows that the CCG ship engaged in intimidating behavior toward ships servicing the rig in a way that could have impeded the drilling operations.
Haijing 35111 Picks a New Target
At the end of May, the Haijing 35111 returned to port in Hainan for a few days before heading south again. Since June 16, it has been patrolling an area of the seabed about 190 nautical miles off the coast of southeastern Vietnam. The patrols are centered on oil and gas Block 06-01, which is situated northwest of Vanguard Bank on the Vietnamese continental shelf. It is 172 nautical miles from the nearest disputed high-tide feature, Spratly Island, and falls within China’s nine-dash line.
The block is key to the Nam Con Son project, which BP and ConocoPhillips developed in the early 2000s to carry gas by pipeline to the mainland. Today, natural gas from Block 06-01’s Lan Do field provides up to 10 percent of Vietnam’s total energy needs. Russia’s Rosneft took over as operator of the block in 2013 when it acquired TNK-BP. In May 2018, Rosneft contracted the Hakuryu-5, a semi-submersible rig owned by Japan Drilling Company, to drill a new production well in 06-01 at a second gas field called Lan Do.
In response, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned that “no country, organization, company or individual can, without the permission of the Chinese government, carry out oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities in waters under Chinese jurisdiction. We urge relevant parties to earnestly respect China’s sovereign and jurisdictional rights and not do anything that could impact bilateral relations and regional peace and stability.” This followed two incidents in July 2017 and March 2018 in which Chinese threats forced Vietnam to cancel drilling work in nearby oil and gas blocks by Spain’s Repsol.
Apparently undeterred, Rosneft went ahead with the drilling at Lan Do and another field, Phong Lan Dai, in Block 06-01. In May 2019, Rosneft contracted the Hakuryu-5 to drill another well in 06-01. Satellite imagery above confirms that the rig was on-site by May 18.
AIS signals show that two Vietnamese offshore supply vessels, the Sea Meadow 29 and Crest Argus 5, have been traveling between Vung Tau on the Vietnamese coast and Block 06-01 regularly since May to service the Hakuryu-5. Using the same tactics employed around the Sapura Esperanza, the Haijing 35111 has been operating in a threatening manner near these vessels in an apparent effort to intimidate them. For instance, on July 2 the vessels were leaving the Hakuryu-5 when the 35111 maneuvered between them at high speed, passing within 100 meters of each ship and less than half a nautical mile from the rig.
The 35111 continues to operate around the Hakuryu-5, which was reported to be on a 60- to 90-day contract. This suggests that China has not yet accomplished its goal and the drilling continues, though whether the operations have been hampered is unknown. This episode also reveals the value of Beijing’s artificial islands to its grey zone tactics in the South China Sea. After patrolling Block 06-01 for nearly a month, the 35111 traveled to the Chinese outpost on Fiery Cross Reef from July 12 to 14, presumably to resupply, before returning to its post near the Hakuryu-5.
China Raises the Stakes
On July 3, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, a survey vessel owned by the government-run China Geological Survey, began surveying a large area of seabed northeast of the standoff at Block 06-01. Its activities have been tracked in near real-time by the U.S. Naval War College’s Ryan Martinson and others on social media.
The Haiyang Dizhi 8 is undertaking an oil and gas survey across two blocks, Riji 03 and Riji 27. China declared these and seven other blocks off the coast of Vietnam open for foreign bidding in 2012, though it had no takers. The survey’s timing could be a coincidence, but it seems more likely meant to punish Vietnam for allowing Rosneft’s drilling in Block 06-01. In either case, it is highly provocative. The two blocks sit well within 200 nautical miles of Vietnam. The survey is being conducted up to 180 nautical miles from the nearest disputed high-tide feature, Spratly Island. The blocks also sit just north of the isolated and extremely vulnerable DK-1 platforms that Vietnam occupies on its continental shelf southwest of the Spratlys.
China has made sure that the survey ship is well-protected. At least four coast guard vessels have escorted it during the survey. The Haijing 37111 and two unidentified CCG ships have accompanied the Haiyang Dizhi 8 since July 3. The 12,000-ton Haijing 3901, one of the world’s largest law enforcement vessels, was also on the scene but only transmitted AIS data on July 6 and 10. At least one known maritime militia vessel, the Qiong Sansha Yu 00114, also joined the escort, transmitting AIS signals from the area on July 13.
Vietnam has responded to the survey by sending its own law enforcement vessels to shadow the Haiyang Dizhi 8. At least two, KN 468 and KN 472, left Cam Ranh Bay and have been following the survey ship since July 4. AIS data shows that the survey ship continues to operate, surrounded by its CCG escort which is boxing out the Vietnamese vessels attempting to intervene.
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. At the same time, pressure is building on both sides to acknowledge and address the issue as more details leak out in public. Vietnam’s National Assembly Chairperson Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan visited China from July 8 to 12, giving both Hanoi and Beijing an incentive to keep a lid on the brewing crisis. But that is changing, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hanoi issuing its first, admittedly vague, response to questions about the situation on July 16, which reiterated Vietnam’s sovereign rights over its waters and seabed and noted that Vietnamese authorities were exercising those rights.
No matter how these incidents develop, China’s actions off both the Malaysian and Vietnamese coasts since May show that Beijing is increasingly willing to employ coercion and the threat of force to block oil and gas operations by its neighbors, even while pursuing its own energy exploration in disputed waters.