Stakes rise in Japan, China gas
dispute By J Sean Curtin
Japan and China appear headed for a
showdown over natural gas exploration and drilling
in the East China Sea.
Up until Japanese
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Monday visited
a controversial shrine to his country's war dead,
it was hoped the showdown might occur at the
negotiating table. But the visit, his fifth since
2001, once again infuriated China, as well as
other Asian nations, putting the status of a wide
range of talks between the two countries in
jeopardy. Among them was this week's hoped-for
decisive round on East China Sea gas.
Japan had hoped that a final make-or-break
round of negotiations
on the gas-deposit
issue would commence on Wednesday in Beijing, but
that looks increasing unlikely in the wake of the
shrine visit. "No date and time have been set
yet," Japan's Vice Trade Minister Hideji Sugiyama
said. China has already canceled Japanese Foreign
Minister Nobutaka Machimura's scheduled Sunday
visit to Beijing.
The East China Sea
situation is becoming increasingly volatile.
Tensions have been high since last month when a
Chinese Navy destroyer aimed its guns at a
Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force P3-C
surveillance plane near the disputed waters of the
Chunxiao gas field in the East China Sea. Five
Chinese Navy warships have also recently been
observed prowling in the same area.
the Japanese news agency Kyodo this week reported
that China last month sent a spy plane, the third
in two months, to the disputed East China Sea area
to collect data on Japanese military vessels
A senior Japanese
diplomat, who did not wish to be identified said:
"It will be difficult for either Japan or China to
compromise in this dispute, but failure to do so
could create a very dangerous situation. We issued
China an ultimatum at the previous talks [at the
beginning of October], and made it clear that the
issue must be resolved in the next and final round
of negotiations scheduled for October 19. If we do
not reach a satisfactory settlement, the Japanese
public's patience is likely to reach breaking
A public opinion poll detailed
this week in the Yomiuri Shimbun suggests that 70%
of Japanese think China should suspend its
unilateral development of natural gas fields in
the East China Sea. The survey also found that 65%
of respondents believe that if China refuses to
stop the gas-field development, Japan also should
develop gas fields in the region on its own.
Compare that to polls that show Japanese
people are almost evenly divided over Koizumi's
shrine visits, and it is not a stretch that the
population could easily be distracted from the
Yasukuni shrine issue and toward the nationalistic
What's at stake in the
East China Sea is 200 billion cubic meters of
natural gas reserves. The sides have had three
rounds of talks without a solution. Meantime,
Japan wants China to cease drilling it claims
could siphon gas from Japanese territory. China is
in no apparent hurry to comply.
has declared that it wants to make the East China
Sea a "sea of cooperation", but in the light of
recent comments many in Tokyo now fear it could
soon become a "sea of confrontation".
Disagreement in the East China Sea centers
around the exploration of the Chunxiao, Duanqiao
and Tianwaitian gas and oil fields, which are
known in Japanese as Shirakaba, Kusunoki and
The three gas and oil fields are in
waters near the median line that Japan asserts is
the boundary between the two countries' exclusive
economic zones (EEZ). Beijing does not recognize
this demarcation and maintains it is exploring
resources in uncontested waters.
three fields China is currently bringing online
are all on their side of the Tokyo-designated
median line, Japan has expressed deep concern that
China may be siphoning off natural resources
buried under the seabed on its side of the median
The Chunxiao/Shirakaba and
Duanqiao/Kusunoki fields have been confirmed to be
connected at the subterranean level to a gas field
that lies within what Japan says is its EEZ. The
Tianwaitian/Kashi gas field is also suspected to
be directly connected to deposits on the Japanese
Tokyo angrily protested to China
last month when production started at natural gas
platforms in the Tianwaitian/Kashi gas field, also
near the median line. Japanese TV broadcast
pictures of flames burning from a funnel on one of
the rigs. The Chunxiao/Shirakaba gas field is
expected to start production by the end of this
month, which is certain to further increase
Japanese resentment toward Beijing.
the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which
both Japan and China are signatories, coastal
countries can claim an economic zone extending up
to 370 kilometers from their shorelines, which
Japan relies on in its argument over the gas
field. But China bases its exploration claim on
another international treaty, the 1958 Geneva
Convention of the Continental Shelf, that allows
coastal countries to extend their borders to the
edges of their undersea continental shelves.
Beijing playing for
time Japanese anger was already building up
ahead of the next round of talks and Koizumi's
Yasukuni foray is likely to increase passions.
Japan's nationalistic lawmakers and the rightwing
press are questioning Beijing's motives and
sincerity in the negotiations. Just after the
last round of talks ended, an October 2 editorial
in the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest
circulation daily, stated: "We cannot rule out the
possibility that China is buying time over the
issue by allowing the bilateral talks to continue.
Such maneuvering could lead to China's development
of the gas fields becoming a fait accompli."
In a recent TV interview, the high-profile
Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Shoichi
Nakagawa adopted a similarly tough line, openly
accusing Beijing of stalling on talks and plotting
to extract as much oil and gas as it can while it
keeps negotiations deadlocked.
said, "As China buys time at the talks, it plans
to push ahead with gas drilling in the so-called
Tianwaitian [Kashi] and Chunxiao [Shirakaba] gas
and oil fields." In another interview he warned,
''I hope Beijing is not just playing for time."
Striking a less confrontational note, he
later indicated that Japan was prepared to have
top ministerial-level talks with China over the
dispute. It was then agreed that Japanese Foreign
Minister Nobutaka Machimura would go to China, a
trip that was cancelled following Koizumi's shrine
possible? Aware of the dangers failure
could bring, diplomats on both sides had been
trying to show a degree of flexibility ahead of
the next round of talks. Although the parties
still remain far apart, joint development of the
disputed areas has been put forward as the best
means for unlocking the impasse and achieving a
Significantly, the focal
point of the dispute recently shifted to whether
Japan and China could viably develop jointly the
contested gas fields.
In the previous
round of talks Japan proposed to China that the
two jointly develop the Chunxiao, Duanqiao and
Tianwaitian gas and oil fields.
It was the
first time Tokyo has formally submitted a proposal
for jointly developing these undersea deposits.
Significantly, China promised to consider the
offer in the round now on hold in the wake of the
prime minister's Yasukuni excursion.
Before Koizumi's shrine visit, Cui
Tiankai, head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's
Asian Affairs Department and the leader of China's
negotiators, said: "We discussed the concept of
joint development. Under these circumstances, some
kind of joint development is the only realistic
However, in the newly strained
atmosphere, it is unclear what kind of approach
China will adopt in the negotiations.
Until recently, Beijing said it was only
willing to jointly develop projects in those areas
situated in what Japan claims is its EEZ, rather
than in the zone around the Chinese median line
Previously Tokyo insisted that
China cease any gas field development near the
median line, a request Beijing completely ignored.
However, in what was hoped to be a breakthrough,
China indicated that it might be willing to
discuss Tokyo's long-standing request to disclose
details of China's own oil and gas-exploration
data, but only once the two nations agree to joint
Kenichiro Sasae, who heads
the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian
Affairs Bureau, has been fairly upbeat about the
Chinese response, "China said it would seriously
consider Japan's proposals."
Prior to the
last round of negotiations, Tokyo was concerned
that Beijing might completely reject its proposal,
or simply respond with a vague or ambiguous reply.
Some Japanese diplomats had believed the dispute
could be resolved if both nations agreed to
conduct joint exploration and development in the
At earlier talks in May,
Beijing had also proposed joint gas-field
development, but only on the Japanese side of the
sea divided by the median line, an idea Tokyo
immediately rejected. Japan then shifted its
position, insisting on joint development on both
sides of the zone, something many believe is the
only viable solution.
Under the current
Japanese proposal, China would have to cease its
development of the three gas fields on its side of
the median line. Beijing would then submit its
below-seabed survey data to Tokyo before the two
could jointly begin development of the gas fields.
Tokyo was hoping this formula would avert a
potential crisis situation developing.
However, with nationalist passion rising
on both sides since the Yasukuni visit, prospects
for a successful outcome to negotiations are not
J Sean Curtin is a
GLOCOM fellow at the Tokyo-based Japanese
Institute of Global Communications.