Chinese Survey Ship Lingering in Indonesia’s EEZ Poses Dilemma for Jakarta

BenarNews staff
2021-09-21
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Chinese Survey Ship Lingering in Indonesia’s EEZ Poses Dilemma for Jakarta
[Radio Free Asia map]

Updated at 8:49 a.m. EST on 2021-09-22

Three weeks ago, a Chinese survey ship sailed uninvited into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. It began criss-crossing a small stretch of the

North Natuna Sea in a lawn-mowing pattern typical for maritime survey vessels. It remained there Tuesday, amid unanswered questions about what exactly it is doing there.

Indonesian authorities have deployed several naval vessels to the area but have nevertheless played down the presence of the 3,400-ton Chinese ship, the Haiyang Dizhi 10. They face a dilemma that has become familiar for the governments of maritime Southeast Asia – how to respond to China’s assertion of its sweeping claims in the South China Sea.

“This is the exact same playbook we saw Beijing use against Vietnam in late 2019 and Malaysia in early 2020,” said Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, referring to past incidents where Chinese survey vessels have loitered in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of neighboring countries, where oil and gas exploration was underway.

A Vietnamese researcher has been monitoring the Haiyang Dizhi 10 since day one.

Duan Dang told BenarNews that he spotted the Chinese ship approaching the Vietnamese EEZ on Aug. 29 near an installation in the Dai Nguyet oil field.

“But in the morning [of Aug. 31, its AIS [automatic identification system] signals showed the Haiyang Dizhi 10 was moving slowly southwards into Indonesian waters and entered the Tuna Block, near where the Noble Clyde Boudreaux rig was,” he said.

The rig was commissioned to drill two wells there until mid-November, according to energy industry sources.

“At one point, it was just 10 nautical miles from the rig,” said Duan.

He started updating almost daily on the Chinese ship’s operation in the area, which lies within Indonesia’s EEZ but overlaps with the so-called “nine-dash line” that China draws to claim most of the South China Sea. Those Chinese claims are disputed by several neighboring countries and not recognized by international law.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) requires governments to seek permission in advance for marine scientific research in another state’s EEZ, a requirement China often ignores.

Media and public attention on the presence of the Haiyang Dizhi and Chinese Coast Guard vessels reported to be in the North Natuna Sea has led to Indonesia sending some naval ships to the area. A maritime air patrol has also been conducted.

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Chinese geological survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 10 is seen during a 2019 visit to Pakistan for hydrocarbon research and geological mapping. [Photo courtesy Pakistan Navy]

Lawn-mowing pattern

However, when asked, a spokesman for the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency, also known as Bakamla, brushed aside the concerns about the Haiyang Dizhi, saying that “there had been no violation of shipping rules.”

“It was probably a normal passage,” said Wisnu Pramandita.

Analysts say the Chinese vessel’s movement in a grid pattern shows that it is clearly engaged in research activities.

H. I. Sutton, a well-known defense analyst, said that the Haiyang Dizhi 10 “appears to be conducting a detailed survey of the sea floor.”

“From the data we have seen, this may be a seismic survey which uses a special sonar to see beneath the sea floor. The most likely use for this would be in relation to hydrocarbon exploitation,” he told BenarNews.

Tuna Block, where Haiyang Dizhi has been operating, is an important oil and gas field. U.K.-based Harbour Energy and its partner, Russia’s Zarubezhneft, are drilling two appraisal wells there using the semi-submersible rig Noble Clyde Boudreaux, according to the publication Energy Voice and Russia’s Interfax news agency.

The area lies about 90 nautical miles north of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. The Indonesian government awarded Premier Oil, which merged into Harbour Energy Plc earlier this year, the right to explore the block in 2007. The Russian operator joined the exploration earlier this year.

Tuna has estimated reserves of 100 million barrels of oil, Zarubezhneft officials told the Russian news agency Interfax in June.

According to AMTI’s Poling, China follows a playbook to challenge resource exploration in disputed waters that it considers to be under its jurisdiction.

“First the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) harasses foreign oil and gas operations in the hopes of coercing the neighboring state to halt the work. Then, if that fails, China deploys a state-owned survey vessel protected by CCG and militia boats to conduct an illegal survey of its own in the offending state’s waters,” he said.

“In this case, it is especially damning because the Haiyang Dizhi 10 surveyed right up to the edge of the nine-dash line but not beyond. This offers clear evidence that Beijing continues to view the line as some kind of national boundary,” Poling said.

Sutton, the defense analyst, agreed.

 “Countries will naturally be concerned at the level and locations of the Chinese survey efforts as those surveys tend to respect the notional nine-dash line which roughly outlines China's own territorial claim over virtually the entire South China Sea,” he said.

‘China’s historic rights’

But not all researchers see it that way.

Mark Hoskin, an independent researcher and lecturer on China’s maritime history and law, said official protests against China’s claim to historic rights were rare before this century.

“While surveys of this nature may be seen as an annoyance by the coastal state, if they are performed in areas that are not militarily sensitive, the benefits to the coastal state outweigh any perceived costs,” he argued.

He said that in the case of the Philippines, such surveys have led to joint development projects, “in which China has the most practical experience of all states in the region.”

Vietnam, another claimant in the South China Sea and perhaps the country under the heaviest pressure from China to cease oil exploration off its southern coast, doesn’t seem keen on the joint development suggestions from Beijing.

In 2019, when the Haiyang Dizhi 8 operated inside Vietnam’s EEZ for three months, Hanoi repeatedly denounced what it called a “violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty and jurisdiction” and demanded that China withdraw its survey ship, which it finally did, saying its survey mission was completed.

But Indonesia’s reaction now, and Malaysia’s response a year earlier when the Chinese Haiyang Dizhi 8 operated in Malaysian waters for a whole month until a Malaysian-contracted drillship had vacated the area, has been much more restrained.

Despite public pressure to defend national interests, the Indonesian government has yet to issue an official response and regional experts say Jakarta seems to be prioritizing a diplomatic approach to the issue.

It boils down to political decisions by coastal states, argued Hoskin.

“In the past, Britain, the Netherlands, and the U.S. would perform surveys without interference in these same waters [in the South China Sea]. Protests against PRC (China) vessels performing such activities are solely political in nature, and do not form a reasoned approach to scientific exploration of the seas,” he said.

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Largest survey fleet

According to Sutton, however, the Chinese survey ships would always be viewed with suspicion, “such as doing surveys for reasons which are not in other countries’ interests.”

An AMTI report in 2020 suggests that maritime research can serve both civilian and military purposes.

“Oceanographic data is crucial for undersea operations… Research vessels purportedly involved in scientific research can also use their instruments for naval reconnaissance, gathering intelligence on foreign military facilities and vessels,” it said.

China operates by far the largest fleet of government research vessels in the region.

According to the database of the International Maritime Organization, there are 64 registered Chinese survey vessels built in or after 1990, surpassing the U.S.’s 44 and Japan's 23.

During 2019-2020, China deployed 25 government vessels in waters beyond its recognized national jurisdiction in the Indo-Pacific, compared to 10 from the U.S., according to the AMTI.

On Tuesday morning, another large Chinese survey ship – the 4,600-ton Dai Yang Hao – was spotted near Fiery Cross Reef, a feature in the Spratly Islands, which is under China’s control but also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Vietnamese ship watcher Duan Dang told Radio Free Asia, a sister entity of BenarNews, that he’s following it with interest.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report contained wrong information about a Chinese survey ship's name and tonnage.

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