05 September 2012

Deep-Water Oil Rigs as Strategic Weapons

Martin Murphy, Deep-Water Oil Rigs as Strategic Weapons,” Murphy on Piracy, 5 September 2012.

A semi-submersible deep-water rig of the type China launched in May – the Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HYSY 981) – and which Chairman Yilin he was celebrating when he spoke about a ‘strategic weapon’, would give China access to all but the very deepest seabed areas within the line. The Stimson Center and Collins and Erickson writing in China SignPost, both believe that for the present China will not deploy such a vulnerable asset outside its undisputed EEZ even though the rig now enables it to undertake drilling operations in the deep waters off the Vietnamese coast.

Collins and Erickson (who provide a useful map illustrating how HYSY 981 extends  China’s exploratory range) take the view that

‘for the near future CNOOC’s deepwater drilling operations will remain in the Liwan trough and other areas that lie unequivocally within China’s EEZ. For Beijing, the diplomatic costs of drilling in a disputed zone such as the Spratlys against the wishes of the other claimants would likely substantially exceed the additional oil or gas production gained. Even a large new oilfield producing 200,000 bpd or more in a disputed zone would not be worth drilling unilaterally if doing so catalyzed further development of anti-China regional security alignments.’

This may be true for the moment given that despite its provocative stance vis-a-vis the Philippines off the Scarborough Shoal, and despite the failure of the ASEAN nations to maintain a united front in the face of its brazen manipulation, China lacks the resources to defend the whole of its claim militarily. That it is working to change this is indisputable. …

For the full text versions of the reports quoted here, see:

Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “China Aims to More Than Triple Its Oil & Gas Production in the South China Sea over the Next 10 years,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 31 (3 April 2011).

Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “Near Seas ‘Anti-Navy’ Capabilities, not Nascent Blue Water Fleet, Constitute China’s Core Challenge to U.S. and Regional Militaries,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 55 (6 March 2012).