China’s deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou 981, a massive billion-dollar rig designed to drill oil, in the South China Sea (SCS), has sent a clear message to the region – Beijing will drill as and where it pleases.
Is China is using the oil rig as a political statement to reinforce its control over the region? Can China do the same in Indian Ocean?
Oil Rigs as Strategic Weapons in the SCS
China’s dispatching of the rig inside Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and then defending it with 80 coast guard and naval vessels is reflective of the lengths Beijing is prepared to go to assert its territorial claims in the SCS. China’s naval and coast guard vessels present to protect its parked rig outnumbered and outgunned the Vietnamese force; and 15 Chinese ships rammed several vessels and sprayed an on-site Vietnamese vessel with water cannons.
It has been pointed out that the decision to move the rig into an area with questionable hydrocarbon reserves had the intention of inciting a diplomatic crisis. A foreign Policy article quoted David Lai, Research Professor, Asian Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), the U.S. Army War College, stating that the "dispatch of the rig to disputed waters, which is hard to justify on commercial, oil-extraction grounds, makes more sense if understood in terms of the stones, or pieces, that are strategically placed on a wei qi board." Wei Qi is an "encircling game" that originated in China more than 2500 years ago and is rich in strategy. The recent activity of wresting control over offshore areas is about position based power where the rig has the ability to create an aura of authority and control than just scramble for resources.
China timed the move just as US President Barack Obama left Asia, and days after India and Vietnam agreed to additional presence by India’s state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) in Vietnam’s oil blocks for joint cooperation in the hydrocarbon sector. Vietnam has offered two new exploration blocks to ONGC Videsh Ltd. (OVL) in addition to the five existing blocs offered in the SCS. Previously too, China carried out energy survey activities in disputed areas while preventing other countries, including Vietnam, from carrying out their own surveys. In 2011, Hanoi had accused Beijing of deliberately severing the cables of an oil and gas survey vessel in two separate instances.
Haiyang Shiyou 981, over 100 meters high and capable of operating in 3,000 meters of water, is indigenously built. For China, self reliance was necessary for undertaking deep sea exploration. The China National Offshore Oil Corporation's (CNOOC) Chairman Wang Yilin, while launching the rig in 2012, stated that, “large-scale deep-water rigs are our mobile national territory and a strategic weapon," that can extend Chinese sovereignty to open waters.
China ‘Rigging’ the Indian Ocean
Will China repeat the assertiveness it projects in the South China Sea in distant waters as well? Beijing has maintained that its strategic focus is the Pacific and not the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). However, it eyes the region as a vital energy and trade route. The Chinese scientific agenda for 2014 includes dispatching its research vessels into the Indian Ocean to assess seabed resources and record biodiversity for exploration and mining.
China's state-owned companies are making considerable financial and diplomatic investment in East Africa and in the South-West Indian Ocean. Chinese agencies are conducting explorations in the South-Western Indian Ocean ridge in the Madagascar Plateau. China has also been offered oil blocks in the Gulf of Mannar off Sri Lanka for exploration. The opening of deep sea oil and gas exploration in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Seychelles, and Madagascar means competition to secure rights over these resources will further intensify.
China is planning to deploy research vessels such as the indigenously built Jialong in the Indian Ocean. Deep-sea submersibles will be used carry out research activities as mentioned in the 2014 Chinese scientific data. However, China currently faces technological challenges in developing undersea exploration and extraction systems and equipment. However, Jialong can potentially monitor submarine cables that run across the Ocean and carry nearly 99 per cent of digital data. Thus, it can keep a tab on maritime and naval activity in the IOR.
It is implausible that, at least in the near future, China has the will or the ability to behave as aggressively in the Indian Ocean as it does in the South China Sea. Yet, the idea of Chinese ships and technicians searching for oil around the Indian Ocean indicates towards a bigger challenge. China is vying for a greater space in the IOR not just in resources but governance and security as well. The recent MH 370 incident is a case in point. China proved to be an active participant with over eleven naval and coast guard ships taking rounds in the Southern Indian Ocean. Nonetheless, the current scenario has provoked worries in India, the US, and in the region about an expanded Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean.