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Chinese drill for oil in troubled waters


By Kathrin Hille in Beijing

China’s largest offshore oil producer Cnooc has started its first deep-sea drilling project in the South China Sea, a move analysts see as a response to domestic pressure on Beijing to assert its claims in the disputed area.

Cnooc 981, China’s first self-developed deep sea drilling platform, started work in a spot 320km south-east of Hong Kong on Wednesday, the company said, adding it was planning to drill three wells and was optimistic that it would find oil.


It is unclear whether the platform’s location, in a block Cnooc calls Liwan 6-1, is in disputed waters. Li Jinming, a South China Sea expert at Xiamen University, said it was located between the Paracel Islands – an archipelago claimed by both China and Vietnam – and the Macclesfield Bank, claimed by China and Taiwan.

The announcement comes amid heightened tension over disputed waters with a month-long stand-off between Chinese and Philippine patrol ships in waters around Scarborough Shoal, a reef just west of Manila.

Fu Ying, China’s vice foreign minister, blamed the Philippines for “making serious mistakes and . . . stepping up efforts to escalate tensions” in a statement released after she summoned Alex Chua, Manila’s chargé d’affaires in Beijing, on Monday.

Chinese state media on Wednesday carried reports welcoming the Cnooc project.

“Exploiting maritime resources in the South China Sea and sending fishing fleets there are effective ways to reinforce China’s territorial claims in the region,” Zhuang Guotu, director of Xiamen University’s Center for Southeast Asia Studies, was quoted as saying in the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid owned by the People’s Daily, the Communist party mouthpiece.

Some people in China including resource companies, military officers and government advisers, have long complained that Beijing should have given a green light for drilling in disputed waters earlier.

Efforts made by the foreign ministry over the past year to reduce tension with China’s neighbours over the South China Sea have added to the domestic pressure.

Zhang Haiwen, deputy director of the China Institute for Marine Affairs, a think-tank under the cabinet-level State Oceanic Administration, argued in a recent article that Vietnam and the Philippines had brazenly pushed ahead with exploration in disputed waters with impunity while China was restraining itself.

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