Over the last four months, Chinese vessels have been contesting Indonesian and Malaysian oil and gas activity in the South China Sea in the latest instance of what is now an established pattern. Chinese law enforcement has maintained a continuous presence at the site of new Indonesian drilling north of the Natuna Islands since early July and a Chinese survey ship conducted seabed surveys in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf. Another Chinese vessel simultaneously conducted a seabed survey of Malaysia’s continental shelf in apparent retaliation for new drilling off Sabah. Satellite imagery and commercial automatic identification system (AIS) data reveal several close encounters between the China Coast Guard (CCG) and Indonesian law enforcement and navy, as well as the visit of a U.S. aircraft carrier near the site of the standoff—but neither appeared to have much effect on the CCG. At the time of publishing, Chinese law enforcement remains active at the Indonesian drilling site.

Indonesia’s Tuna gas block and Malaysia’s Siakap North Petai oil field fall within each country’s continental shelf—as well as China’s nine-dash line claim.

This latest saga over oil and gas activity in the South China Sea began on June 30 when a semi-submersible rig, the Noble Clyde Boudreaux, arrived to drill two appraisal wells in Indonesia’s Tuna block located approximately 140 nautical miles north of Natuna Besar. China responded almost immediately, with the CCG 5202 arriving on July 3 to patrol near the rig. Indonesia promptly sent out the KN Pulau Dana, a patrol ship of the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency or Bakamla, which was spotted there on AIS on July 3-4. The Pulau Dana was the first in a long series of patrol vessels from both Bakamla and the Indonesian Navy that visited the rig and pursued Chinese vessels over the past four months, including the KN Tanjung Datu, the KN Pulau Marore, the KN Pulau Nippah, the KRI John Lie, and the KRI Bung Tomo.

Indonesian patrol ships usually visited the area one at a time, spending two to four days there before heading back to shore. AIS data and satellite imagery indicate that on many occasions they pursued Chinese vessels at ranges of less than 1 nautical mile—much closer than AMTI has observed of Vietnamese and Malaysian patrol vessels in similar recent standoffs with China. A satellite image from Planet Labs on August 11 captured the navy ship KRI Bung Tomo operating just half a nautical mile from the CCG 5305, with the KN Pulau Marore following close by.

Chinese law enforcement vessels also took shifts. The CCG 5202 operated in the Tuna block from July 3 to August 8 before it was replaced by the 5305. AIS data from the 5305 was intermittent on commercial platform Marine Traffic, but satellite imagery suggests it was there through the end of September and into early October. It was eventually relieved by the 6305, which began operating near the Noble Clyde Boudreaux in mid-October and remains there at the time of publication.

By late September, news of China’s activity near the Noble Clyde Boudreaux, first publicized in detail on September 18 by Vietnamese defense blogger Duan Dang, appeared to have reached the ears of the U.S. Navy. A Planet Labs image from September 25 caught the USS Ronald Reagan, en route from Singapore to the Philippines with the guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh, passing just 7 nautical miles from the rig. The passthrough recalls U.S. presence operations by the amphibious assault ship USS America and littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords near another standoff between China and Malaysia in 2020, but this is the first observed instance of a U.S. aircraft carrier operating in such proximity to an ongoing standoff.


Simultaneous Surveys

The close encounters would continue when China deployed a survey ship, the Haiyang Dizhi 10, to conduct a seabed survey on Indonesia’s continental shelf on August 27. The Haiyang Dizhi 10 arrived and began its survey on August 30 accompanied by the CCG 4303. Its survey path covered the overlapping space between the northern edge of Indonesia’s continental shelf and the southern edge of China’s nine-dash line. Despite Beijing’s efforts to downplay the line, this is the latest example of Chinese government vessels treating it as a de facto boundary.

The Indonesian Navy’s KRI Bontang, a tanker ship, was deployed to the scene and shadowed the Haiyang Dizhi 10’s operations from September 14 to 17. AIS data indicates that the KRI Bontang pursued the Haiyang Dizhi 10 at extremely close distances, at some points coming within 400 yards. The CCG 4303 left in early to mid-September and was replaced by the 6305 on September 26.

Meanwhile, another survey ship, the Da Yang Hao, was sent to waters within Malaysia’s continental shelf to conduct its own survey. The apparent trigger for its deployment were the activities of the West Capella, a drillship no stranger to oil and gas standoffs, contracted since July by Thailand’s PTTEP for drilling in the Siakap North Petai oil field in Malaysia’s Block K.

The Da Yang Hao began its survey on September 25, notably also operating in the Bruneian and Philippine EEZs and continental shelves. It made clear that its operations were retaliation for the West Capella’s activities when it made three visits (on September 26, October 7, and October 10) to within 6 nautical miles of the drillship. Unlike the Haiyang Dizhi 10, the Da Yang Hao’s escort included two auxiliary research vessels, the Yue Xia Yu Zhi 20028 and 20027, as well as at least one militia vessel, the Qiong Sansha Yu 318, along with the CCG 6307. A satellite image from Planet Labs taken on October 15, the last day of its survey, shows the Da Yang Hao surrounded by four ships, with additional vessels possibly hidden by significant cloud cover.

The decision to use militia escorts for the Da Yang Hao but not the Haiyang Dizhi 10 may have been a calculated decision to reduce the chance of an accident since the Indonesian authorities seem more likely than their Malaysian counterparts to confront Chinese vessels at close ranges. AMTI did not observe any Malaysian law enforcement or navy activity near the Da Yang Hao on AIS.

The Haiyang Dizhi 10 near Fiery Cross Reef, September 17, 2021

The Da Yang Hao eventually ended its survey and headed for Guangdong on October 15, while the Haiyang Dizhi 10 headed home on October 21. The CCG 6305, however, remains in the Tuna gas block operating near the Noble Clyde Boudreaux and Indonesian patrol ships continue to deploy to the area. The Noble Clyde Boudreaux and the West Capella both remain at their drilling sites. The West Capella is scheduled to complete its operations in November while the Noble Clyde Boudreaux is contracted through the end of 2021.

China’s persistent efforts to harass oil and gas activity within the nine-dash line have seemingly complicated the investment picture for oil and gas operators in Southeast Asia. The Noble Clyde Boudreaux was originally contracted by Premier Oil in March 2021, but after a merger deal by which it became Harbour Energy in April, the company “farmed out” its stake in the Tuna block to Russian state-owned operator Zarubezhneft. One of the few foreign oil and gas operators continuing to invest in the South China Sea, Zarubezhneft also made an agreement in May to buy out Rosneft’s stake in several Vietnamese oil and gas blocks. This includes an operating stake in Block 06-01, the site of a standoff between Hanoi and Beijing in 2019, and where the Noble Clyde Boudreaux itself had a contract for new drilling abruptly canceled in 2020, possibly due to concerns over increased CCG activity at nearby Vanguard Bank.