Update: China Risks Flare-up over Malaysian, Vietnamese Gas Resources


December 13, 2019  |  AMTI Brief

Update: China Risks Flare-up over Malaysian, Vietnamese Gas Resources

The Chinese survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 along with its coast guard and paramilitary escorts left Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone on October 23, ending a standoff with Vietnamese ships that began more than four months earlier. The de-escalation seems to have been in response to the departure a day earlier of the drilling rig Hakuryu 5 from Vietnam’s oil and gas Block 06-01, which is operated by Russia’s Rosneft.

The standoff began on June 16 when a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship started harassing the Hakuryu 5 and the offshore supply vessels servicing it. Automatic Identification System (AIS) data shows that several CCG ships were deployed in succession to keep up the harassment over the course of the standoff, including the 35111, 45111, 4203, 3308, 5303, and 2305. As ships were relieved, they often traveled to the Chinese outpost on Fiery Cross Reef to resupply before either joining the escort mission around the Haiyang Dizhi 8 or heading back to China.

Exactly how many Chinese and Vietnamese vessels were involved in these two related operations over the course of the standoff is unclear. Those broadcasting AIS—mostly the CCG—almost certainly account for just a small percentage of the total number. Some Vietnamese law enforcement vessels had broadcast AIS during the early weeks of the standoff in July, but soon ceased doing so. In October, Vietnamese Major General Nguyen Minh Hoang announced that 50 Vietnamese and 40 Chinese vessels were involved, while others reported as many as 80 Chinese participants.

Only a few opposing ships seem to have been regularly deployed around the Hakuryu 5 throughout the standoff, suggesting that most of these reported vessels were busing escorting the Haiyang Dizhi 8 or, in the case of the Vietnamese, trying to block its operations. A satellite image from late August captured a Vietnam Fisheries Resource Surveillance vessel positioned between the Hakuryu 5, which was being serviced by an offshore supply vessel (identified via AIS as the Crest Argus 5), and CCG ship 5303. The 56-meter Vietnamese vessel is effectively unarmed and less than half the size of the 138-meter 5303, one of China’s advanced Type 818 Zhaoduan-class cutters which sports a 76-mm cannon.

The Hakuryu 5 broadcast AIS only sporadically during the standoff. Its signal was last seen in Block 06-01 on October 17 and then again in port at Vung Tau, Vietnam, on October 26. This lends credence to social media reports that it had left Block 06-01 on October 22 after completing its drilling work. AIS data shows that the last CCG vessel assigned to the area, the 31302 (since renamed the 2305) left the same day heading north. It joined up with the Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escorts a day later and together the group returned to Hainan.

As for the Haiyang Dizhi 8, it moved north after the first few weeks of the standoff, extending its survey over a much wider area for the next three months. In hindsight, it is clear that the survey area closely matched a group of oil and gas exploration blocks that the China National Offshore Oil Corporation unsuccessfully offered up for foreign bidding in 2012.

Over the course of the standoff, the Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its CCG escorts made multiple resupply trips to Fiery Cross Reef. While ultimately unsuccessful in persuading Vietnam to halt Rosneft’s drilling work in block 06-01, China’s operations demonstrated that its Spratly outposts now allow it to conduct extended pressure campaigns, increasing the costs and risks for its neighbors to operate within the nine dash line.


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September 26, 2019  |  AMTI Brief

Signaling Sovereignty: Chinese Patrols at Contested Reefs

China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels have been harassing a drilling rig operating in a Vietnamese oil and gas block near Vanguard Bank, an underwater feature in the South China Sea, since June. Meanwhile, a large contingent of CCG ships have since July been escorting the Chinese state-owned survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 operating off the Vietnamese coast farther north. These actions have drawn attention to the CCG’s increasing role in asserting Chinese claims over seabed resources throughout the South China Sea. They also highlight how the CCG’s access to newly-built port facilities on artificial islands in the Spratlys allows it to sustain such deployments. But less appreciated is the persistent presence the CCG maintains around several symbolically important features in the South China Sea: Luconia Shoals, Second Thomas Shoal, and Scarborough Shoal. Tiếp tục đọc “SIGNALING SOVEREIGNTY: CHINESE PATROLS AT CONTESTED REEFS”

China Risks Flare-Up Over Malaysian, Vietnamese Gas Resources

July 16, 2019
July 16, 2019  |  AMTI Brief

China Risks Flare-Up Over Malaysian, Vietnamese Gas Resources

Twice in the last six weeks, the same China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel has harassed oil and gas operations by its neighbors in contested waters on opposite sides of the South China Sea. A Chinese state-owned vessel, meanwhile, has been undertaking a seismic survey of oil and gas blocks off the Vietnamese coast. This risks a confrontation between the contingent of CCG and militia boats escorting the survey ship and a group of Vietnamese vessels dispatched to the area. The situation also reveals a double-standard: Beijing appears to be committed to preventing new unilateral oil and gas activities by its neighbors anywhere in the “nine-dash line,” which demarcates its claims in the South China Sea, even as it explores and exploits hydrocarbons in contested waters. Tiếp tục đọc “China Risks Flare-Up Over Malaysian, Vietnamese Gas Resources”

Failing or Incomplete? Grading the South China Sea Arbitration

On July 12, 2016, an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued its ruling in Manila’s case against Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. Convened under the compulsory dispute settlement provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the tribunal’s five arbitrators ruled overwhelmingly in the Philippines’ favor.  Beijing refused to participate in the arbitration and rejected the outcome. Meanwhile, the newly-inaugurated president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, downplayed the victory in the hopes of coaxing China toward a more conciliatory policy and, as a result, international pressure on China to comply with the award has evaporated. The ruling clarified important aspects of UNCLOS and customary international law, but there was never much hope Beijing would accept its findings.

Nonetheless, many observers hoped that over time China might find politically face-saving ways to bring its claims and behavior into line with the substance of the ruling, even while rejecting the process. In the three years since the arbitral award, and since Manila’s adoption of a more accommodating policy toward Beijing, has China moved any closer to compliance? AMTI has compiled a list of actionable findings from the tribunal and assessed whether China’s recent actions are in-line with them. Overall, China is in compliance with just 2 of 11 parts of the ruling, while on another its position is too unclear to assess.

Arbitration Compliance Report Card

(Click each row for more information)

Tiếp tục đọc “Failing or Incomplete? Grading the South China Sea Arbitration”

China’s Most Destructive Boats Return to the South China Sea

May 20, 2019  |  AMTI BRIEF

China’s Most Destructive Boats Return to the South China Sea

After a sharp drop-off in activity from 2016 to late 2018, Chinese clam harvesting fleets have returned to the South China Sea in force over the last six months. These fleets, which typically include dozens of small fishing vessels accompanied by a handful of larger “motherships,” destroy vast swaths of coral reef in order to extract endangered giant clams. The clam shells are transported back to Hainan Province where they fetch thousands of dollars each in a thriving market for jewelry and statuary. Since late 2018, satellite imagery has shown these fleets operating frequently at Scarborough Shoal and throughout the Paracels, including at Bombay Reef. Tiếp tục đọc “China’s Most Destructive Boats Return to the South China Sea”

Still Under Pressure: Manila Versus the Militia

April 16, 2019  |  AMTI BRIEF

Still Under Pressure: Manila Versus the Militia

Since early March, Chinese fishing vessels—apparently part of the country’s maritime militia force—have been operating near two Philippine-held features in the disputed Spratly Islands: Loaita Island and Loaita Cay, called Kota and Panata Islands by Filipinos. The Philippine press began to report this militia presence in early April, prompting the government to say it would protest to Beijing. This comes as tensions between the two sides are running high over the presence of a larger Chinese flotilla deployed since December 2018 near Philippine-occupied Thitu Island. Over the last several weeks, Philippine officials have issued diplomatic protests and public recriminations against Beijing over that deployment, which appears aimed at dissuading Manila from continuing modest infrastructure upgrades on Thitu. Tiếp tục đọc “Still Under Pressure: Manila Versus the Militia”