Japan Barely Afloat in the East China Sea

in Program

By Brian Clampitt – Japan and China recently announced a plan for limited joint development of gas fields in a disputed area of the East China Sea. While no doubt a step forward, the agreement still does little to solve the complicated issues affecting those waters. The smallest incident there could still lead to an international maelstrom. The warming ties between Japan and China could facilitate a wide-ranging accord regarding the East Asia Sea, but it is clear that this issue will not drift away on its own.

The agreement between China and Japan, announced last month, is a small but noteworthy development in a dispute that has gone on since China declared it would unilaterally develop the Chunxiao (Shirakaba in Japanese) gas field in 2004. The new agreement would likely lead to Chinese companies developing the gas field, with Japanese investment supporting operations. Unfortunately, the legal and political components of the larger dispute over the East China Sea will likely stall the plan well before any actual implementation.

The Chunxiao/Shirakaba gas field is among half a dozen fields dotted along what the Japanese government calls the East China Sea’s “median line,” the border between China and Japan’s waters, calculated by splitting a line down the middle of both countries’ overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones. The Chinese government does not accept Japan’s “median line” concept, citing the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Continental Shelf that allows a country’s border to be as far as its underwater continental shelf extends. For China, this adds an extra 81 thousand square miles and clear ownership of all gas fields. Japan counters that its assertions are based off the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was meant to supplant the 1958 treaty.

Although Japanese officials leaked to the press that four gas fields would be included in the deal, the Chinese side agreed to only one. While Japan hailed the agreement as watershed, the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi later asserted Chinese sovereignty of the waters in an interview, adding that the deal with Japan was simply akin to a foreign company investing in a Chinese job.

These remarks suggest that China’s commitment to the project is in rocky waters. The ownership of the gas fields are not the only problem. The Senkaku islands (known as Diaoyutai in Chinese) also fall in the disputed area within the East China Sea. Though these eight uninhibited, resource-free islands are only 2.7 square miles (combined), Japan, China, and Taiwan all claim sovereignty.

The islands, currently administered by Japan, have over the past several decades become a source of nationalistic expression. Japanese youth erected a lighthouse on the biggest island in 1978, for instance, while Chinese protesters erect flags on the islands periodically (only to have the Japanese Coast Guard quickly remove them). Unfortunately these nationalistic incidents sometimes blow up into major crises.

An incident in early June involving a Taiwanese fishing boat is a stark reminder that these islands remain to be the source of emotional nationalistic outbreaks. Taiwanese fishing boats often wander into the region but are usually forced away by Japanese patrol boats. Last month, a Japanese Self Defense Force frigate crashed into a Taiwanese fishing boat while pursuing it, causing the vessel to sink. All 14 fishermen were rescued and detained, but the event caused a firestorm of criticism against Japan. Protests were staged in Taiwan and Hong Kong, with demonstrators burning Japanese flags and demanding that Japan apologize and get out of the Diaoyu islands. Taiwanese patrol ships even escorted a boat full of 12 protestors that sailed around the islands for a few hours before heading home. Japan’s Coast Guard did not engage the protestors, and the Japanese government eventually did apologize for the earlier crash, but many in Taiwan still feel incensed. Though Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou accepts Japan’s apology and hopes relations will not sour, he has constantly reasserted Taiwan’s claims to the islands.

If a small fishing accident can cause mass protests, it is clear that no matter how much Japan tip-toes around sovereignty issues, an episode like this could cause a regional crisis. When “ownership” is at stake, nationalism flares, and the dispute cannot be solved by slowly moving toward consensus because the governments involved are thinking in a zero-sum game mentality. The gas field deal reached last month is almost bound to hit nationalistic and legal roadblocks without comprehensive negotiations over the East China Sea.

Given the positive results of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to Tokyo, Japan is in the right position to start high-level talks to bring substantive change to the East China Sea. With worldwide spotlight this summer on China, which is hosting the Summer Olympics, and Japan, which hosted the G8 Summit, both governments are in the mood to limit conflict and show leadership. Whether they commit to real change after the cameras go away remains to be seen.

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Brian Clampitt is an intern with the East Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center.


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