China has developed a giant new offshore oil exploration platform for possible use in disputed tracts of sea, a move that would anger Vietnam and extend years of energy-related disputes between the two Asian neighbors.
The platform dubbed Haiyang Shiyou 982 sits over the sea now, ready to seek oil deposits up to 9,000 meters deep, a Chinese social media account run by the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission reported Wednesday.
Boats from Vietnam and China rammed one another in 2014 after China allowed an offshore oil firm to position the platform’s predecessor, Haiyang Shiyou 981, in disputed waters. Earlier this year, Vietnam asked a Chinese survey vessel to leave Vanguard Bank, a maritime feature where the Southeast Asian country is looking for fuel under the seabed.
Expect more resistance if Haiyang Shiyou 982 ruffles Vietnam, analysts warn.
“They will have some kind of reaction for sure, because the South China Sea is by no means cool in terms of temperature,” said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “It can flare up at any moment.”
The worst case could reignite a sometimes violent two-way spat over maritime sovereignty that goes back to the 1970s.
Haiyang Shiyou 982
Chinese-language media reports said in early 2018 the sixth-generation drilling platform had been “delivered” in the northeastern port city Dalian. The platform should improve the equipment for China’s offshore drilling work, those reports said.
The commission said media had been invited to observe operations aboard the 10-story-high platform. It did not say where at sea the platform was deployed but said the site was about a one-hour helicopter ride from Sanya in southern China. Sea tracts along the mainland Chinese shoreline are not contested.
Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines claim all or parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. China, which calls about 90% of the waterway its own, has taken a military and technological lead over the past decade. Other countries, for example, often contract for oil exploration while China relies heavily on its own rigs.
The U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates 11 billion barrels’ worth of oil under the South China Sea along with 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Vietnam vs. China
The 981 rig’s 2014 deployment also set off deadly anti-China rioting in Vietnam. The Vanguard Bank flap this year led to a standoff after the Chinese energy survey ship, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, began patrolling waters near Vanguard Bank 352 kilometers off the coast of southeastern Vietnam. Vietnam operates an undersea energy exploration platform nearby.
Vietnam sometimes works with foreign companies, such as the Spanish firm Repsol and ONGC Videsh of India, on exploration contracts. Beijing resents foreign influence in the South China Sea and pressures Vietnam to stop some of the joint projects.
“I think (the new platform) is probably not to consolidate the Chinese sovereignty, but it’s to undermine the effort or the attempt of Vietnam to pursue joint exploration with other countries,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
Strategic gain for China
China’s new platform strengthens its control over the disputed sea and could be even read as a “second front” of resistance against the United States, Chong said. The U.S. government does not claim the South China Sea but advocates keeping it open internationally. The U.S. Navy regularly sends ships into the sea and China criticizes the passages as foreign interference.
If questioned by other governments about the new oil platform, Chong said, China could say the platform is purely aimed at drilling for oil.
The platform could also send a signal to the Philippines, among others, about China’s willingness to explore jointly for oil or gas in the disputed sea, said Herman Kraft, political science professor at the University of the Philippines.
Manila and Beijing said earlier this year they would explore together and let the Philippines take 60% of any discoveries. That deal extends Beijing’s effort to get along with the other South China Sea claimants and limit U.S. influence in the region, Asian maritime scholars have said.
China hopes to start the project with Manila while Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is in office through 2022, Kraft said. Duterte began pursuing friendship with China in 2016, a departure from his predecessor.
“At this point, this is really more of China trying to make sure that they’re going to being able to take advantage of Duterte’s still being in power and being able to move forward that memorandum of understanding into something that’s actually more operational,” he said.