Regional Cooperation over the Sanchi Incident: Review and Reflection
A rescue ship extinguishing the fire on the Iranian oil tanker Sanchi. (Photo: Reuters)
By Xinyue Zhang

Regional Cooperation over the Sanchi Incident: Review and Reflection

Feb. 18, 2019  |     |  0 comments

On January 6, 2018, the Iranian-owned oil tanker Sanchi collided with the grain freighter CF Crystal in the East China Sea, and became the biggest tragedy that the region has seen in decades. All 32 crew members were believed dead (29 missing and three bodies found). Carrying 111,000 tonnes of cargo condensate and about 1,900 tonnes of bunker oil[1], the tanker was engulfed in fire and occasional explosions for 8 days, and finally sank on January 14. This incident caused the first and largest ship-source condensate release in maritime history, which combined with the fuel oil trapped in the wreckage, has imposed grave challenge to the ocean environment[2].

Regional countries, especially China and Japan, were criticized for inadequate cooperation responding to the incident. Given that Sanchi was drifting southeast ward, and finally sank in the disputed waters of these two countries, it was speculated that China and Japan were concerned that “unilateral actions taken or tacit permissions given for the other to act” may prejudice their own claims. China was even reportedly denying the offer of help from Japan.

It is easy to attribute to political reasons such as territorial and maritime disputes for lack of collaboration, yet a closer examination may find more nuances at the technical level. Especially one year after the incident, a better understanding on how and why the limit has been during and after the incident may shine more light on what regional countries should do to improve on it.

Regional Cooperation during the Sanchi Incident

The accusation that China refused Japan’s help is probably not true. Both Japan and South Korea sent ships to participate in search and rescue (SAR) operations. Even the US navy sent an aircraft to assist. Those facts could be found in reports from international media such as BBC, Reuters and The New York Times[3]. In addition, according to the 1979 Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, “the first rescue unit arriving at the scene of action should automatically assume the duties and responsibilities of an on-scene commander.”[4] And that was how China did on-site in coordinating other countries’ capabilities, since it was the first to arrive on the site of the incident.

A regional online marine pollution reporting system (POLREP) was also used which enables China, Japan, South Korea and Russia to share information timely with regard to the oil spill, conditions of the tanker and measures taken during the emergency response. This system is established under the UN Environment Programme Action Plan for the Protection, Management and Development of the Marine and Coastal Environment of the Northwest Pacific Region (NOWPAP) of which all the four countries mentioned above are members. And POLREP proves to be “effective” in facilitating relevant operations[5].

That said, regional cooperation does not seem close or adequate, which could be seen in different aspects including SAR, oil spill response as well as the monitoring and environmental impact assessment. Indeed, rare reports could be found on regional countries’ collective action by far, either during the emergency response operations or afterwards.

Limits of Regional Cooperation and Reasons Behind

With regard to SAR, it seems that rescuing and recovering the crew from Sanchi was the top priority for China which devoted the most capabilities on-site among all parties involved. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif on January 13, one day before Sanchi sank, “as long as there is one percent chance of hope, China will make one hundred percent of effort.” [6] And on the same day, a Chinese salvage team finally boarded Sanchi, recovered two bodies, and retrieved the black box[7]. Yet, there was actually no consensus over the contingency plan. Some experts maintained that since the tanker was caught in blaze and blasts, the chance of surviving crew on board was very low; yet most of the condensate and bunker oil could be burnt up in the fire and thus minimize the environmental damage. In this sense, putting out the fire may not be necessary. While some others argued that rescuing people in distress should be the priority, especially the Iranian authorities who insisted that there might be chance of crew surviving in the vessel’s engine room which is 14 meters below the water and not directly affected by the fire[8]. On January 14, the Iranian rescue team even had another attempt to board Sanchi with Chinese assistance, though not successful. Yet, the limited engagement from Japan and South Korea may indicate their difference with China and Iran.

With regard to oil spill response, the NOWPAP Regional Oil and Hazardous and Noxious Substances (HNS) Spill Contingency Plan (RCP) has provided a framework for regional cooperation. And POLREP, developed by RCP specifically, has enabled NOWPAP members to be alerted and updated. Vessels from Japan and South Korea arrived on site were also intended to verify and monitor how serious the pollution had been caused, so as to conduct necessary operation accordingly. Yet, as a Chinese official pointed out, the contingency plan was not really activated because the incident occurred outside the NOWPAP geographical scope. This claim may be only part of the reason for lack of collective response. A more important factor is that this accident was more than regional countries’ oil spill response capacities were trained for. On the one hand, unlike the heavy crude oil that is frequently seen in oil spill precedents, the natural gas condensate that Sanchi leaked was lighter, more soluble, and much more difficult to be separated from water or to be contained. Thus, as Chemistry World pointed out, “cleaning technologies developed for heavier oils were useless” in dealing with this new type of release[9]. On the other hand, as the tanker sunk on the sea floor, a significant portion, yet identifiable amount of condensate and about 1900 tons of fuel oil remain trapped with the wreckage[10]. Though the risk of further leakage lurks, what would be the best solution remains a myth, which involves no less technical challenge than environmental concerns.

For this new type of condensate spill, comprehensive environmental monitoring and assessment will be helpful to understand how it affects the marine ecology in the real world.

The last but not the least, for the assessment and monitoring of environmental impact of the spilled oil, the ocean model simulation of UK and China suggests that though most pollutant may end up in the Kuroshio current, the oil contamination may ultimately affect China, Japan and South Korea[11]. Thus NOWPAP, the most relevant inter-governmental organization of this region, should have provided a multilateral cooperative framework. There are two mechanisms under it: the Pollution Monitoring Regional Activity Centre (POMRAC) leads monitoring marine pollutants, and produces State of the Marine Environment Report; and the Data and Information Network Regional Activity Centre (DINRAC) aims to promote cooperation and information exchange on marine and coastal environment among member countries. However, NOWPAP by far proves far from effective. The databases of DINRAC are only updated to the year 2015 for the best. And for POMRAC, it is still working on “strengthening regional capacity on pollution monitoring through knowledge and information sharing and capacity building.”[12] The State of the Marine Environment Report by far had only two issues, one in 2007 and the other 2014; and there is no plan of monitoring or environmental assessment for major pollution events like Sanchi yet.

The Way Forward

With some of the biggest energy importers such as China, Japan and South Korea bordering on, and the busiest shipping lanes crisscrossing, the northwest Pacific has seen high risks of ship-source oil spill. And a major incident like Sanchi just set another alarm. Joint effort between China and Japan are called for to tackle the problem left by Sanchi, and still more among regional countries to prepare for the future.

To begin with, since the sunken tanker in the disputed water of China and Japan may have become a time bomb, both countries need to have regular monitoring on the wreckage site and jointly seek for further solutions. In this sense, disputes need to be set aside, and information sharing needs to be promoted. On October 26, 2018, China and Japan signed an agreement on maritime search and rescue after years of negotiation. And one of the most significant features of this agreement is that it does not mention applicable sea region, only focus on the necessity to share information, react and cooperate. With bilateral relations warming up, China and Japan should build on such spirit, and expand it to the field of marine environmental protection. Such as to explore ways to cooperate on the monitoring of the shipwreck condition as well as marine environment nearby; these could be very good and meaningful projects to start with.

Second, it is imperative for NOWPAP to further strengthen its capacity in oil spill response preparedness. By far member countries have conducted full-scale oil and HNS spill exercises regularly; and for efficient implementation, further amendment of RCP is also under discussion. After the Sanchi incident, there were also exchanges of emergency response operation experience over it. For member countries, further exercises responding to incidents involving spill of lighter oil varieties such as condensate should be included. New technology and techniques to deal with these varieties should also be explored by competent research institute or companies, either designated by relevant agencies of NOWPAP or a certain member country alone with funding from the oil industry. Furthermore, development of a regional oil spill prediction model should also be included in member countries’ working agenda, so as to enhance confidence in model projections during emergencies.

Third, for this new type of condensate spill, comprehensive environmental monitoring and assessment will be helpful to understand how it affects the marine ecology in the real world. There are reports of China’s short-term monitoring of water quality around the wreckage site. Yet more need to be done with regard to the impact of the dissolved toxic chemicals on various marine species such as plankton, invertebrate, fish, sea bird and mammals, which is essential not only to the fishing industry, but also to regional ecological protection and restoration. This is a big project requiring international collaboration in various forms. If NOWPAP is not yet capable of coordinating such a big project, regional countries should seek for other bilateral and multilateral means. Charting this new ground is not to simply fill a scientific vacuum; rather this is to prepare for a new type of environmental challenge posed by increasing production of natural gas condensate in a shifting global energy structure.

[1] Liping Yin, Min Zhang, Yuanling Zhang and Fangli Qiao, “The long-term prediction of the oil-contaminated water from the Sanchi collision in the East China Sea”, Acta Oceanologica Sinica, March 2018, Vol. 37, No. 3, pp. 69-72.

[2] Cally Carswell, “Unique oil spill in East China Sea frustrates scientists”, Nature, 24 January 2018,

[3] Yuka Obayashi, “Stricken Iranian oil tanker drifts into Japan's economic zone: coast guard”, Reuters, 12 January 2018, ; Osamu Tsukimori, “Oil from sunken Iran tanker reached Japan shores: Coast Guard”, Reuters, 22 February 2018,; Steven Lee Myers and Javier C. Hernández, “A nearly invisible oil spill threatens some of Asia’s richest fisheries”, The New York Times, 12 February 2018,; “China tanker fire: Bodies found as Sanchi burns, one week on”, BBC, 13 January 2018,

[5] “UN information sharing platform speeded response to worst oil spill in Northwest Pacific,” Press release, 20 July 2018,

[6] “王毅:中方将继续全力搜救伊朗船只和船员,” 中国新闻网, 13 January 2018,

[7] Michael Martina and Tina Qiao, “Burning Iranian oil tanker sinks after January 6 accident: Chinese state TV,” Reuters, 14 January 2018,

[8] “Iran firm says there may be survivors from tanker crash,” Associated Press, 10 January 2018,

[9] Katrina Krämer, “Oil spill cleanup,” Chemistry World, 1 June 2018,

[10] “China debating whether to raise sunken Iranian oil tanker from seabed,” Asashi Shimbun, 2 February 2018,

[11] National Oceanography Centre, “Coral reefs may be at risk from Sanchi oil tanker contamination,” 6 February 2018 & supra note 1 Liping Yin, Min Zhang, Yuanling Zhang and Fangli Qiao

[12] “Report of the 15th NOWPAP POMRAC Focal Points Meeting”, 5 July 2018,