Since early June, China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels have been contesting new Malaysian oil and gas development off the coast of Sarawak. The activity coincides with a patrol by Chinese military planes near Malaysia, which prompted scrambles by Malaysian aircraft and recriminations from Kuala Lumpur.  This is at least the third time since last spring that the CCG has harassed Malaysian energy exploration. It demonstrates again Beijing’s persistence in challenging its neighbors’ oil and gas activities within their own exclusive economic zones. And the air patrol, which was likely not a coincidence, suggests Beijing’s willingness to engage in parallel escalation to pressure other claimants to back down.

The tensions revolve around development of the Kasawari gas field in Malaysia’s block SK316. First discovered in 2011, Kasawari has been under development for several years. The block sits approximately 4.3 nautical miles north of another gas field, NC3, which came online in 2016. Like NC3, the Kasawari field will feed into liquefied natural gas production facilities at Bintulu, Sarawak, 100 nautical miles to the south.

From May 19 to 24, Malaysia’s state-owned Petronas used six tugs to transport materials to the port of Miri in Sarawak in preparation for the installation of a wellhead platform at Kasawari. The Malaysian government announced this in advance through a notice to mariners, which would have put both local operators and China on alert. On June 1, just before the construction work at Kasawari was to begin, 16 Chinese military aircraft approached to within 60 nautical miles of Sarawak “flying in tactical formation.” Malaysian fighter jets scrambled from Labuan after the Chinese planes ignored attempts to communicate. After the incident, Malaysian foreign minister Hishamuddin Hussein erroneously stated that the aircraft had violated “Malaysian airspace and sovereignty,” summoned the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia, and vowed to file a diplomatic protest. The likely trigger for the patrol—and Malaysia’s angry reaction—was clear three days later.

CCG vessels regularly operate around nearby Luconia Shoals, staying there for months and often making passes by Malaysian offshore energy operations. Ship-tracking data from commercial provider Marine Traffic shows that the CCG 5403 was operating in the area on June 4 when the Sapura 2000, a pipelay barge owned and operated by Malaysia’s Sapura Energy, arrived at Kasawari along with several offshore supply vessels. Sapura Energy is contracted to install the jacket and topside of the wellhead platform at Kasawari.

Automatic information system (AIS) data from the CCG 5403 shows it operating in close proximity to the Sapura 2000 almost immediately after the latter arrived at Kasawari. This is despite the presence of the Royal Malaysian Navy’s Bunga Mas Lima, a naval auxiliary ship (and veteran of oil and gas standoffs) deployed to the area a day in advance of the Sapura 2000’s arrival, likely in anticipation of a response from Chinese law enforcement.

AIS signals from both the CCG 5403 and the Bunga Mas Lima were intermittent, but a ping from the 5403 on June 5 showed it operating within two nautical miles of the Sapura 2000, and on July 7 it came within 1.2 nautical miles.

On June 12, the CCG 5403 left Kasawari and was replaced by the larger CCG 5303, a 138-meter Zhaoduan-class cutter. AIS shows that the Bunga Mas Lima returned to Sarawak on June 13, but the 5303 remained. Satellite imagery from Planet Labs was able to capture the CCG 5303 operating close to the Sapura 2000 and its offshore supply vessels on three separate occasions.

The 5303’s AIS signal goes dark from June 17 until July 5, but a July 3 image showed it still operating near the Kasawari field, suggesting it probably spent that time continuing to harass the Sapura 2000.

On July 3, the Sapura 3000 joined the Sapura 2000 to install the drilling platform for the Kasawari wellhead. AIS data from July 5 shows the CCG 5303 clearly objecting to that activity, passing less than 400 yards from the Sapura 3000, and about 200 yards from one of its offshore supply ships, the Bes Elite.

As of publishing, the CCG 5303, Sapura 2000, and Sapura 3000 all remain at Kasawari. AMTI has not observed any other activity from Malaysian law enforcement or military since the departure of the Bunga Mas Lima in June. While the current tensions are likely to subside once installation of the wellhead is complete, a second phase of work at Kasawari slated for 2022 suggests that friction between Chinese law enforcement and Malaysian offshore energy operations off Sarawak is almost guaranteed to continue.