Updated 5/18/2020:

Haiyang Dizhi 8 during survey operations off of Malaysia, May 4, 2020

The three-country standoff that began last December over Malaysian oil and gas exploration has escalated dramatically with the deployment of a Chinese survey ship and its escorts earlier this month. The game of chicken now playing out between Chinese and Malaysian vessels is familiar. Vietnamese and Chinese ships spent four months last year doing the same after Hanoi refused Beijing’s demands to halt oil and gas work. The current drama will likely end the same way that episode did. But the danger of accidental escalation is very real.

The West Capella, a drillship operated by London-managed Seadrill and contracted to Malaysia’s Petronas, remains at the heart of the standoff. Since late December, it has been conducting exploratory drilling in two oil and gas fields: Arapaima-1 in block ND1 and Lala-1 in block ND2. The ship apparently finished its operations in Arapaima-1 and has been at Lala-1 since March 6. Throughout March and early April, AIS data from Marine Traffic showed Chinese fishing vessels continually operating near the West Capella. Commercial satellite imagery confirmed that China Coast Guard (CCG) ships continued to harass the rig and its supply vessels. In response, Malaysian navy and law enforcement ships have been regularly patrolling the area.

The West Capella drillship (left) operating at the Lala-1 field while Malaysian naval auxiliary ship Bunga Mas Lima (right) patrols nearby, April 10, 2020

Things escalated further on April 13. AIS data shows that Chinese state-owned survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8—the same ship that surveyed up and down the Vietnamese coast last year—left Hainan escorted by CCG ships 1105 and 4203. At least one maritime militia vessel traveled with the group, and they were tailed by Vietnamese law enforcement while passing through Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. They arrived over Brunei’s continental shelf, about 80 nautical miles from the West Capella, on April 15 and began surveying the next day.

Since then, the Haiyaing Dizhi 8 along with its escort of multiple CCG and militia ships has been surveying a swath of the Malaysian continental shelf near the West Capella’s location. It has approached as close as 8.5 nautical miles from the drilling ship. Its track has occasionally crossed into Bruneian waters or the Joint Defined Area also claimed by Vietnam as part of its extended continental shelf. But the survey has mostly stayed within Malaysia’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

An April 22 satellite image from Planet Labs reveals the current state of play. The Haiyang Dizhi 8 is seen towing a sensor array. It is surrounded by eight other ships ranging from 40 to 60 meters in length, all within five nautical miles of it. None are broadcasting AIS, but most, if not all, are likely militia vessels escorting the survey ship. AIS data and satellite imagery from this time also show two CCG ships, the 4203 and an unidentified Zhaoduan-class cutter, patrolling 10 nautical miles away to the west and south.

AIS and satellite imagery have revealed several other law enforcement and fishing vessels engaged in the standoff. For instance, the CCG 46104 began patrolling around the West Capella on April 4 and was still there as of its most recent broadcast on April 20. Several apparent Chinese fishing vessels have broadcast AIS from the vicinity of the West Cappella or alongside the Haiyang Dizhi 8, including the Min Xia Yu 00013, Min Ping Yu 61699, Dong Tong Xiao 00235, and Yuanhai 006. But the Chinese vessels on the scene are frequently sharing identification numbers and changing the names they broadcast over AIS, making it difficult to get an exact count.

Malaysian government vessels continue to patrol around the West Capella to protect its operations. Most recently, the KD Kelantan has been broadcasting AIS from the area since April 25 and the Bunga Mas Lima broadcast on April 30. It is unclear whether Malaysian ships have also been shadowing the Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escorts. Vietnamese militia vessels are also likely on the scene, monitoring developments and asking the West Capella to leave the Joint Defined Area, as they have been since early January. But it is hard to definitively identify the many smaller vessels that are not broadcasting AIS as Chinese, Malaysian, or Vietnamese.

The standoff took another turn when the U.S. Navy’s USS America, USS Bunker Hill, and USS Barry, along with the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Parramatta, approached the area of the West Capella while conducting joint exercises that began on April 18. Commercial satellite imagery captured the warships operating within 53 nautical miles of the drilling ship on April 21, but they may have approached much closer before they left the area. Then, on April 25, the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship Gabrielle Giffords left Singapore’s Changi Naval Base for a patrol, passing near the Haiyang Dizhi 8 the next day. By April 27, AIS showed that it had approached to within 24 nautical miles of the Chinese survey ship, though gaps in its AIS mean it might have come closer. The Gabrielle Giffords headed back to Singapore that day.

It is impossible to say exactly when and how this standoff will end, but Vietnam’s experience with similar intimidation last year offers hints. The Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its CCG escorts will most likely call off the operation when the West Capella pulls out, as they did when the Rosneft-contracted Hakuryu-5 rig finished its work off Vietnam last October.  Malaysia appears determined to let Petronas wrap up its exploratory drilling in the Lala-1 field despite China’s opposition. Documentation from Seadrill shows that Petronas has contracted the West Capella through May 2020. Assuming that its operations have not been significantly hampered by the CCG harassment, that means everyone is likely to head home within the next month. But in the meantime, there will be considerable risks of an accidental collision and violent escalation. And once it ends, Southeast Asian governments and commercial operators will have to come to grips with the reality that new oil and gas exploration anywhere in the South China Sea without Beijing’s permission will probably face the same level of high-risk intimidation.