Depends on who you ask, there are signs that the friction in the oil rich South China Sea may be abating. Tensions seem to be easing in the short term, with nothing resolved to the long-term problem of border demarcation. Two countries in particular have been China’s main thorn in their quest to claim the entire sweep of the South China Sea – Vietnam and the Philippines – and in its dealings with both of them, China is rewarding cooperation and punishing dissidence.
Last month, Vietnam ordered Spanish firm Repsol to halt work on its Ca Rong Do (Red Emperor), where commercial drilling was imminent, later asking it to declare ‘force majeure’ following pressure from China. It is the second major cancellation in the southern Nam Con Son basin – which skirts China’s nine-dashed line – and could cost Repsol and partners some US$200 million in sunk investment. Vietnam has been vocal about pursuing its own energy agenda, but in the end, ended up having to kowtow to China.
The Philippines has also loudly proclaimed sovereignty over its part of the South China Sea, going as far as to bring the case to UNCLOS, which ruled in favour of the Philippines in a 2016 verdict that China refuses to recognise. However, since then, President Duterte has made cordial overtures to joint developments. While both sides have reiterated that joint oil and gas exploration will not affect their legal positions. The Philippines announced last week that cooperation was moving ahead after both countries claimed to recognise and accept each other’s ‘firm red lines’. It by no means settles the issue in the long run – indeed, successive governments could reverse the position – but it paves way for resources to be developed like in the Thailand-Malaysia Joint Development Area, legally unsettled but commercially viable. In choosing to engage, China has seemingly rewarded the Philippines with a mutually beneficial arrangement, a stance that it has not taken with the more belligerent Vietnam.
That’s not the best outcome, though, as the issue of maritime borders is still unsettled. China has always favoured bilateral talks with each of the claimants to the South China Sea – Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei included – a divide and conquer strategy that allows it to throw its weight around. But with the USA absent to exert pressure for encompassing solution, favoured by the Obama administration but ignored by Trump, the countries of the South China Sea rim are sitting ducks against the might of China. Either they capitulate – and are rewarded with some crumbs – like the Philippines; or they defy – and end up capitulating anyway with nothing to show – like Vietnam. The vibe in the South China Sea may be seemingly calmer right now, but there are still dangerous currents beneath the surface.
The Current Weather Forecast: China and the South China Sea Nations
Vietnam – Choppy. China has been pressuring Vietnam to halt fishing and upstream activity.
The Philippines – Calmer. China has agreed to joint development of hydrocarbon resources
Malaysia – Calm. No clashes yet, but Malaysia controls part of the disputed Spratly islands.
Brunei – Calm. No clashes yet, but Brunei claims part of the disputed Spratly islands.
Indonesia – Choppy. No clashes yet, but Indonesia claims the waters around the Natuna islands are its ‘traditional fishing grounds’, effectively re-naming it “North Natuna Sea”
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 11 March 2019 – Brent: US$66/b; WTI: US$56/b
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In 2017, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global – also known as the Oil Fund – proposed a complete divestment of oil and gas shares from its massive portfolio. Last week, the Norwegian government partially approved that request, allowing the Fund to exclude 134 upstream companies from the wealth fund. Players like Anadarko Petroleum, Chesapeake Energy, CNOOC, Premier Oil, Soco International and Tullow Oil will now no longer receive any investment from the Fund. That might seem like an inconsequential move, but it isn’t. With over US$1 trillion in assets – the Fund is the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world – it is a major market-shifting move.
Estimates suggest that the government directive will require the Oil Fund to sell some US$7.5 billion in stocks over an undefined period. Shares in the affected companies plunged after the announcement. The reaction is understandable. The Oil Fund holds over 1.3% of all global stocks and shares, including 2.3% of all European stocks. It holds stakes as large as of 2.4% of Royal Dutch Shell and 2.3% of BP, and has long been seen as a major investor and stabilising force in the energy sector.
It is this impression that the Fund is trying to change. Established in 1990 to invest surplus revenues of the booming Norwegian petroleum sector, prudent management has seen its value grow to some US$200,000 per Norwegian citizen today. Its value exceeds all other sovereign wealth funds, including those of China and Singapore. Energy shares – specifically oil and gas firms – have long been a major target for investment due to high returns and bumper dividends. But in 2017, the Fund recommended phasing out oil exploration from its ‘investment universe’. At the time, this was interpreted as yielding to pressure from environmental lobbies, but the Fund has made it clear that the move is for economic reasons.
Put simply, the Fund wants to move away from ‘putting all its eggs in one basket’. Income from Norway’s vast upstream industry – it is the largest producing country in Western Europe – funds the country’s welfare state and pays into the Fund. It has ethical standards – avoiding, for example, investment in tobacco firms – but has concluded that devoting a significant amount of its assets to oil and gas savings presents a double risk. During the good times, when crude prices are high and energy stocks booming, it is a boon. But during a downturn or a crash, it is a major risk. With typical Scandinavian restraint and prudence, the Fund has decided that it is best to minimise that risk by pouring its money into areas that run counter-cyclical to the energy industry.
However, the retreat is just partial. Exempt from the divestment will be oil and gas firms with significant renewable energy divisions – which include supermajors like Shell, BP and Total. This is touted as allowing the Fund to ride the crest of the renewable energy wave, but also manages to neatly fit into the image that Norway wants to project: balancing a major industry with being a responsible environmental steward. It’s the same reason why Equinor – in which the Fund holds a 67% stake – changed its name from Statoil, to project a broader spectrum of business away from oil into emerging energies like wind and solar. Because, as the Fund’s objective states, one day the oil will run out. But its value will carry on for future generations.
The Norway Oil Fund in a Nutshell