A months-long standoff over oil and gas operations in the South China Sea is playing out between Malaysian, Chinese, and a small number of Vietnamese vessels, though all three governments are keeping the episode out of the public eye. At issue are two oil and gas fields that Malaysia’s state-owned Petronas is exploring on the extended continental shelf claimed by both Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi. These fields sit within Malaysian oil and gas blocks ND1 and ND2. China has responded with a campaign of intimidation reminiscent of its operations against Malaysian and Vietnamese oil and gas work last year. Those operations have spilled over to include harassment of other Malaysian oil and gas work closer to shore.

AMTI has tracked the standoff using the vessels’ automatic identification system (AIS) broadcasts along with commercial satellite imagery. This data reveals a dangerous, ongoing game of chicken involving law enforcement, militia, and civilian vessels. It is necessarily an incomplete picture—it only captures those ships broadcasting AIS or which happened to be in the area when a satellite image was captured. It is entirely likely that additional naval, air, law enforcement, and militia assets from all sides have been involved over the last two months. But the available data captures those vessels that have been most heavily involved, particularly China Coast Guard (CCG) ships Haijing 5203 and 5305. It also reiterates the new normal in the South China Sea: that new energy development by Southeast Asian states anywhere within the nine-dash line will be met by persistent, high-risk intimidation from Chinese law enforcement and paramilitary vessels.

The West Capella, a drillship operated by London-managed Seadrill and contracted to Petronas, is at the heart of the standoff. In October 2019, the West Capella began operating in oil and gas block ND4 off the coast of Malaysia’s Sabah State. From December 6 to 9, two CCG ships—the Haijing 5202 and 5403—patrolled around the vessel, presumably taking time off from escorting a fishing fleet which would later provoke a very public standoff with Indonesia. At nearly 5,000 tons, the Zhaolai-class 5403 is one of the most intimidating ships in the CCG arsenal. At 2,700 tons, the Zhaojun-class 5202 is considerably smaller but much better armed, sporting a 76-mm cannon.

On December 21, the West Capella moved to block ND2, exploring an oil and gas field called Lala-1. It was operating beyond Malaysia’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone in an area which both Malaysia and Vietnam claim as part of their extended continental shelves. When the two countries submitted those claims to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2009, they recognized that the “Defined Area” in which they overlapped was disputed and agreed that they were making claims to it without prejudice to its eventual delimitation. Petronas appears to be disregarding that agreement. The area also falls within China’s nine-dash line.

The CCG responded almost immediately. On December 21, the 5202 again detoured from its duties escorting Chinese fishing vessels in the area to patrol around the West Capella. On December 22, China dispatched the Haijing 5203 from Hainan to Luconia Shoals, where Beijing maintains a near-constant presence off the coast of Malaysia’s Sarawak State. For the next two months, the Zhaojun-class 5203 split its time between harassing the West Capella and intimidating oil and gas operations closer to Luconia Shoals.

The 5203 spent December 26-27 patrolling oil and gas block SK408, which is operated by Sapura Energy with investments from Petronas and Sarawak Shell, before heading off to harass the West Capella on January 3. Another CCG vessel, the recently renamed Haijing 5305 (formerly the 46303), made a detour to harass the West Capella on January 6 while en route to reinforce the Chinese fishing flotilla then operating in Indonesian waters. Satellite imagery also reveals what appear to be Vietnamese fishing vessels deployed around this time to monitor the Malaysian operations in the joint Defined Area.

In response, the Royal Malaysian Navy dispatched the KD Jebat, a 2,270-ton guided missile destroyer, to guard the West Capella and the offshore supply ships servicing it. The Jebat patrolled the area from January 5 to 9. AIS data from January 7 showed the 5203 circling around the West Capella and an offshore supply vessel, the Executive Balance, approaching to within 0.3 nautical miles. The CCG vessel then pulled back, apparently in response to the Jebat which was patrolling 3.4 nautical miles away.

Satellite imagery collected that day shows the aftermath of this encounter, with the 5203 steaming back to Luconia Shoals. It also reveals two 40-meter fishing boats, which were not broadcasting AIS, loitering about 7 nautical miles west of the drilling ship. They appear to be Vietnamese, likely part of the country’s maritime militia.

On January 12, the West Capella moved 6.6 nautical miles east to a new drilling location, still within block ND2 but no longer inside the defined area of overlapping claims with Vietnam.  The Zhaoduan-class vessel 5305, which displaces more than 4,000 tons, passed close by the next day; the Chinese fishing fleet near Indonesia had just broken up and the 5305 had a new mission. It temporarily relieved the 5203, which left to resupply at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys for three days before returning to harass the drilling operations again on January 15.

The West Capella moved once more on January 20, this time heading 31.7 nautical miles northwest to a field in block ND1 called Arapaima, which is well within the Vietnam-Malaysia joint defined area. The 5203 followed with another patrol the next day. On January 26, the 5305 began splitting its time between harassing the West Capella and patrolling waters near Vanguard Bank, claimed by Vietnam, to the west.

While the 5305 took over harassment of the West Capella, the 5203 from January 28 focused on patrolling near Malaysian oil and gas operations closer to Luconia Shoals. The ship made several passes near jack-up rigs and production platforms in blocks SK308 and SK408 operated by Shell and Sapura, respectively.

At the same time, the Royal Malaysian Navy deployed another ship, the Kedah-class patrol vessel KD Kelantan, to protect the West Capella. The Kelantan broadcast AIS intermittently from within block ND1 between January 26 and 30. AIS showed it leaving the area on February 3 heading back to Sabah.

After another trip to Fiery Cross Reef on February 2, the 5203 returned to Luconia Shoals and continued to patrol near Shell and Sapura’s oil and gas operations. On February 6, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency deployed a 45-meter patrol vessel, the KM Bagan Datuk, to the area. It stayed until February 10, approaching close to the 5203 on at least one occasion. The Bagan Datuk returned for another patrol on February 16. That same day, the 5203 finally left Luconia Shoals; it was replaced by the well-armed Zhaojun-class Haijing 5204.

Meanwhile the 5305 appeared to switch off its AIS on February 7, but a satellite image from February 15 shows it was still patrolling around the West Capella. It was positioned less than 1 nautical mile from the supply ship Executive Benevolence. The Vietnamese maritime militia also apparently remained on-station, with two 40-meter boats operating between the CCG vessel and the West Capella.

A Chinese fishing vessel named Lurongyuyun 50018 left Hainan on February 15, arriving in ND1 the next day. AIS data from February 17 showed the ship, apparently a member of China’s maritime militia, approaching close to the West Capella and several offshore supply vessels servicing it. The fishing boat also appears to have interacted with the 5305, which then headed to Fiery Cross Reef for resupply, and the 5302, which was passing through on its way from Luconia Shoals to Hainan.

As of publication, the standoff is ongoing. The West Capella and its offshore supply vessels continue to operate in block ND1. Vietnamese militia vessels remain on-station monitoring and likely demanding it halt its work. Chinese militia and law enforcement ships continue to approach dangerously close to the rig and supply vessels, creating risks of collision as they have during other oil and gas operations over the last year. So far, the Malaysian government appears determined to continue the exploration. But China’s response sends a message that actual production of oil and gas in blocks ND1 and ND2 would be prohibitively risky for any commercial actor, including Petronas. The motivations of China and Vietnam seem clear. The biggest question is why the Malaysian government chose to ignore the spirit of the 2009 join submission with Vietnam and, in so doing, undermine whatever solidarity Southeast Asian parties might hope to build in their oil and gas disputes with Beijing.