China: Deep-Water Rigs as Strategic Weapons

China’s Nine Dash line map was first published by the Republic of China in 1948 under the heading “Map of the locations of the South China Sea Islands”.

On 30AUG12, the Wall Street Journal, ran an interesting piece that had China and naval warfare bloggers abuzz. The Chairman of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), Wang Yilin, reportedly told audiences that “[l]arge scale deep-water [oil] rigs are our mobile national territory and a strategic weapon.” Wang’s comments came after China had launched its first deep-water oil rig, the Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HYSY 981), in May.

The WSJ article goes on to point out,

State-controlled CNOOC is using the rig to drill three wells this year in the South China Sea—an area with overlapping claims by China and other surrounding nations and an increasingly sore friction point between Beijing and Washington.

Mr. Wang now is spearheading Cnooc’s $15.1 billion offer to acquire Canada’s Nexen Inc., a blockbuster deal that needs U.S. regulatory approval because of Nexen’s energy assets in the Gulf of Mexico.

It is the latest deal in a dual role that Mr. Wang has assumed since taking Cnooc’s reins last year: running his company as a profit-driven multinational enterprise overseas, and promoting it as a political and strategic asset at home.

Martin Murphy’s blog makes an interesting comparison between Wang’s announcement, China’s views on oil platforms as sovereign territory, and China’s ‘Three Warfare’ Thinking. In regards to the latter, he succinctly breaks the strategy down to:

  • Psychological Warfare, which seeks to undermine an enemy’s ability to conduct combat operations by deterring, shocking, and demoralizing enemy military personnel and supporting civilian populations;
  • Media Warfare that is aimed at influencing domestic and international public opinion to build support for China’s military actions and dissuade an adversary from pursuing actions contrary to China’s interests; and
  • Legal Warfare that uses international and domestic law to claim the legal high ground or assert Chinese interests, employing both to hamstring an adversary’s operational freedom and shape the operational space. Legal warfare is also intended to build international support and manage possible political repercussions of China’s military actions.

While this comparison provides some additional context to possible Chinese thinking, Murphy mainly concentrates on issues of control in the South China Sea. While certainly India has developed interests drilling for oil in that area, China’s promotion of oil rigs as strategic weapons may create more tensions with the subcontinent as China slowly moves into the Indian Ocean from East Africa.

Murphy even provides additional information on the matter:

Pertinent examples are the emerging oil and gas province off East Africa and the seabed mineral deposits in the South-West Indian Ocean for which the UN International Seabed Authority recently granted China an exploratory license. It is unlikely that China will behave as aggressively in these areas as it is being in the South China Sea, but the grant of the mineral license has nonetheless provoked worries in India about an enlarged Chinese Indian Ocean naval presence.  What its words (and actions) reveal is that it continues to regard the sea as territory, as compared the Western view that has prevailed for the past 300 years of the sea as space open to all subject only to limited restrictions.

While it will be interesting to see how these future developments will unfold, in the context of this blog, it should be mentioned that India’s new non-alignment 2.0 strategy does put an emphasis on maritime power as one of its principles. As India pushes toward developing a blue water navy, comparing capabilities of India’s latest acquisitions as well as the disposition of forces will certainly be chief among risk analysts watching the situation.


Wang Yilin, Chairman of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation

Mr. Wang began his career at China’s Petroleum Ministry in 1982 after receiving a bachelor’s degree in petroleum geology and exploration from China University of Petroleum. After the ministry was dissolved and replaced by China National Petroleum Corp., Mr. Wang spent the 1990s and early 2000s as a CNPC executive in China’s ethnically restive yet resource-rich Xinjiang region, according to an official Cnooc biography. Mr. Wang is believed to have political backing as well. Zhou Yongkang, a member of China’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee and former CNPC executive, is believed to be among those helping Mr. Wang’s career. (WSJ)


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