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Discovery of Unusual Natural Gas Sharpens China’s Maritime Sovereignty Claims

A Chinese naval Z-9 helicopter prepares to land aboard the People's Liberation Army (Navy) frigate CNS Huangshan as the ship conducts a series of maneuvers and exchanges with the USS Sterett in the South China Sea June 16, 2017.
A Chinese naval Z-9 helicopter prepares to land aboard the People's Liberation Army (Navy) frigate CNS Huangshan as the ship conducts a series of maneuvers and exchanges with the USS Sterett in the South China Sea June 16, 2017.

Repeated discoveries of an obscure, offshore natural gas known as flammable ice will bolster Chinese claims to a sea that’s contested by five other Asian governments.

China extracted 861,400 cubic meters of flammable ice, a natural gas hydrate, for a daily average of 28,700 cubic meters during a mission that started in February, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported Thursday.

The findings give China new cause to use the sea, despite protests from other countries, while ensuring an energy supply for its 1.4 billion population, analysts say. China would gain an even more solid footing in the sea if it began licensing flammable gas extraction technology to other countries or partnering with them to extract it, the scholars add.

A new discovery “simply strengthens their argument” about why China should remain in the sea to pursue oil and gas, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim all or parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. China calls roughly 90% of the waterway its own, overlapping zones claimed by the other governments and causing occasional clashes.

China took a lead over the past decade by landfilling tiny islets for military use. Chinese technology, such as drones and underwater surveillance systems, is considered more advanced than the knowhow of Southeast Asian claimants.

International law would not recognize an energy discovery as cause for claiming sovereignty, Araral said.

Although the other claimant governments are busy at home managing Covid-19 disease caseloads, they are expected to take note eventually if China expands exploration. The discovery site, called Shenhu, is located in undisputed Chinese waters 320 kilometers from the mainland shore.

“So far, I haven’t (seen) any official diplomatic protests from the Vietnamese side, but I think that they are closely watching the development,” said Nguyen Thanh Trung, Center for International Studies director at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.

Flammable ice lies under other tracts of the seas, meaning other countries will take interest, said Stuart Orr, professor of management at Deakin University in Australia.

Flammable ice

China’s minister of land and resources said the country mined flammable ice at sea for the first time in 2017 after about two decades of research, according to Xinhua. Because it can be ignited like ethanol, the gas is called “flammable.”

One cubic meter of ice equals 164 cubic meters of regular natural gas, Xinhua said. The energy source that also occurs in Arctic tundra zones is considered clean and easy to transport yet hard to commercialize.

The 2017 effort at Shenhu, which is about 1,225 meters deep, produced less gas than the recent one, Xinhua said.

Sino-foreign joint exploration

The flammable ice haul this month will let China showcase “technological prowess” and seek exploration partnerships with other countries, said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Other claimants to the sea lack their own flammable ice technology, Koh said. The four Southeast Asian claimants actively explore, however, for oil and conventional natural gas.

“There should be some substantial interest from many other countries in accessing the technology that China has developed, which would give China the option of either licensing or choosing to share these capabilities with countries of interest, and that could provide it with significant political leverage in a world that’s worried about sources of low-cost energy,” Orr said.

The Chinese leadership sees this discovery as a chance to remove foreign multinational energy drillers from the disputed sea, Koh said. Deals between Southeast Asian states and firms from Europe, India and the United States let foreign players into a waterway that Beijing sees as Chinese.

“China is long aware that Southeast Asian countries will be turning to the foreign multinational energy corporations for this sort of venture, and all the while China wanted to be seen as a viable partner,” Koh said.