It has been revealed that China has started building facilities for developing a new gas field near the Japan-China median line in the East China Sea.
This action contravenes an agreement between the Japanese and Chinese governments to “realize joint (gas) development as soon as possible,” reached in June 2008. China should immediately halt the work to develop the new gas field.
That is because a boundary dispute still exists between the two countries over their respective exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the East China Sea.
While Japan argues for the establishment of an EEZ halfway between the two coastlines, China insists on an EEZ based on its extended continental shelf, which extends beyond the median line eastward into the Japanese side.
But China has been developing gas fields only in areas in the Chinese side of the median line set by Japan. The site of China’s new gas development is closer to the Chinese mainland than the other gas fields the country is developing in the region. Beijing apparently thinks the area completely falls under China’s jurisdiction, and the project should raise no diplomatic issues.
But the median line Japan has been citing in the dispute is nothing but a provisional maritime demarcation line designed to show only the minimum range of Japan’s territorial claim in the region. Japan believes it has, at the very least, exclusive rights over marine resources located on its side of that line.
Tokyo has not abandoned its rights over areas on the Chinese side of the median line.
In short, there is no agreement on the boundary between the two countries’ EEZs in this region.
That’s why Tokyo and Beijing agreed in 2008 to shelve the bilateral dispute over the boundary of their EEZs and promote joint development of gas fields while trying to prevent tensions from rising until the demarcation line is formally established.
In response to Japan’s protest against China’s move, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said China is doing nothing that can be criticized. It is a regrettable statement that can only mean China has forgotten about the agreement.
In May 2010, the two countries decided to start negotiations for a formal agreement to settle the dispute. But an incident in which a Chinese trawler operating in waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands collided with Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels took place immediately before the second round of talks, creating a tense diplomatic standoff between the two countries and thereby disrupting the negotiations.
Still, the leaders of the two countries reconfirmed in their meeting at the end of 2011 their commitment to make the East China Sea “a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship,” a phrase which first appeared in a joint statement of the two governments in 2008.
Even though the territorial row over the Senkaku Islands between Japan and China flared up anew last year, the bilateral agreement on joint gas development has not been scrapped.
Why does China continue developing gas fields in disputed waters in this region?
There are undoubtedly economic motives behind the strategy. But it is hard not to suspect that China is building facilities to accumulate a number of faits accomplis to gain the upper hand in territorial disputes by taking advantage of the lack of an agreement on a demarcation line.
It also seems that Beijing’s gas development drive is in sync with the Chinese military’s efforts for naval expansion.
It is easy to imagine that there is strong sentiment in favor of a hard-line stance toward Japan both within the Chinese government and among the Chinese public. Perhaps, Beijing is also trying to put pressure on Japan, which is not showing a willingness to budge on the sovereignty issue concerning the Senkaku Islands.
But China’s move to develop a new gas field has caused deep disappointment among people in Japan who have been working to create an opportunity for the two countries to start patching up their strained ties.
Neither of the two countries would benefit from a further deterioration of the situation concerning their territorial spats.
The 2008 deal to set aside touchy territorial issues for cooperation is a reasonable way to deal with such disputes that follow common sense in the international community.
China should revive its commitment to the spirit of the agreement and take positive steps toward finding a chance to mend relations with Japan.
--The Asahi Shimbun, July 7
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