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Tom Kirkman

Tensions boil in South China Sea as Petronas drills and China fumes

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Time to rename the South China Sea to the South *Asia* Sea, and tell China to go play in their own back yard instead of bullying Southeast Asian countries.

Anyway, more oil drama in the South Asia Sea.  China being a bully once again.  Shocking, I know.


Tensions boil in South China Sea as Petronas drills

Tensions are rising in the resource-rich South China Sea following a recent standoff between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing over Malaysian oil and gas exploration.

A tense encounter around the West Capella, a drillship operated by Seadrill and contracted to Malaysian NOC Petronas, started last December, but the situation, fraught with danger, escalated dramatically with the deployment of a Chinese survey ship and its escorts in mid-April 2020.

The West Capella has been carrying out exploratory drilling off the Malaysian state of Sarawak on two prospects: Arapaima-1 in Block ND1 and Lala-1 in Block ND2. The drillship apparently completed drilling at Arapaima-1 and has been at Lala-1 since March 6, reported the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI). However, Chinese vessels have consistently harassed the drilling rig and its supply ships throughout March and early April, said AMTI. In response, Malaysian navy and law enforcement ships have been regularly patrolling the area to protect the rig’s operations.

But the situation escalated when the Chinese state-owned survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 arrived in the area where the West Capella has been operating, near the outer edge of Malaysia’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The waters in this area are also claimed by China through its sweeping claim to most of the South China Sea within its U-shaped ‘nine-dash line’, which is not recognised by its neighbors or internationally by The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Nevertheless, since mid-April, the survey ship along with its escort of multiple coastguard and militia ships has actively been surveying a swath of the Malaysian continental shelf near the West Capella, said AMTI. It has approached as close as 8.5 nautical miles from the drillship. And its track has occasionally crossed into Bruneian waters or the Joint Defined Area also claimed by Vietnam as part of its extended continental shelf. But the survey has mostly stayed within Malaysia’s 200-nautical-mile EEZ, reported AMTI.

Significantly, the standoff took another turn when US naval vessels and an Australian naval ship approached the area of the West Capella on April 18, lending an escalatory geopolitical dimension to an already tense situation, wrote Euan Graham, Director, International Security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, in his essay “U.S. Naval Standoff With China Fails to Reassure Regional Allies”.

But Malaysia, the partner the US was there to help had mixed feelings about the uninvited arrival of US and Australian naval ships, said Graham. Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammunddin Hussein issued his own statement affirming Malaysia’s commitment to safeguard its interests and rights in the South China Sea. “Characteristically, Hishammuddin sought to position Malaysia in between the US and China,” said Graham. Acknowledging that “international law guarantees the freedom of navigation,” Hishammunddin added that the presence of warships and vessels in the South China Sea has “the potential to increase tensions that in turn may result in miscalculations which may affect peace, security and stability in the region.”

Indeed, “within a few days, and without further incident, the USS America, its escorts, and the Australians quietly left the scene. China’s warships withdrew around the same time,” reported Graham.

“The rest of the world has since moved on, but from Malaysia’s perspective, the episode is anything but over,” said Graham. Indeed, the Haiyang Dizhi 8 remains active within Malaysia’s EEZ, guarded by four Chinese coastguard vessels.


(More in the link)

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