One small step for stability

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — The June 18 announcement of the Beijing-Tokyo agreement to jointly develop gas fields in the disputed waters of the East China Sea should help ease tensions between the two countries as they try to forge a new, forward-looking cooperative relationship, but it may cause internal difficulties for China.

The accord was difficult to reach because of overlapping territorial claims, and the two countries describe the agreement differently. In Japan, two Cabinet members, Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura and Akira Amari, minister of economy, trade and industry, announced the news at a news conference, with Komura declaring that “Japan and China have reached a political agreement over cooperation in the East China Sea.”

In Beijing, the government adopted a much lower profile. The news was announced by a more junior official, Jiang Yu, spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, who described the accord as a “principled consensus on the East China Sea issue.”

The agreement was possible only because both sides agreed to shelve competing territorial claims, which have beset the relationship for more than three decades. The “principled consensus” suggests that neither side has given in on matters of principle while agreeing to a pragmatic resolution of their differences.

Though the issue is sensitive for both countries, it is particularly difficult for China because of strong anti-Japan sentiments that stem from the Japanese invasion and occupation of China in the 1930s and 1940s.

On the day the agreement was announced, Chinese protesters held a demonstration in front of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, demanding that Japan leave the East China Sea.

The Japan side pressed for an early agreement in part because China had already started to develop the Chunxiao gas field. While the drilling is in Chinese waters, Japan believes that the gas field itself may straddle the “median line” between the two sides. (Beijing does not recognize this median line as its claim rests on the extension of the Chinese continental shelf.)

In its announcement, China made a distinction between the agreement to jointly develop undersea resources in a block in the East China Sea and the Chunxiao gas fields.

According to Jiang, the Japanese role in the Chunxiao oil and gas field is simply one of foreign investment, not joint development. Chinese officials have stressed that China’s sovereign rights over the gas field remain unchanged.

The Japanese side has shown understanding of the Chinese position. “If the Chinese side is saying [Chunxiao] is not joint development, I have no intention to protest and say that’s wrong,” Foreign Minister Komura said.

“We have won the opportunity for Japanese firms to take a stake in a place that the Chinese side has already begun developing. For us, it doesn’t really matter whether that is referred to literally as joint development.”

The East China Sea accord was not unexpected. During President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Japan in May, both he and Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda indicated that significant progress had been made. While much remains to be negotiated before joint development can begin, the accord itself is a significant step forward in the two countries’ efforts to put history behind them and to cooperate on common interests. Failure to resolve the issue would have affected not only Sino-Japan relations but peace and stability in East Asia.

Although the accord is described as a “transitional step” until the sea border is demarcated, both sides hope it will further their goal of making the East China Sea a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship. Relations between the two countries have improved markedly since Junichiro Koizumi, who regularly visited the Yasukuni Shrine over opposition from China and South Korea, stepped down as prime minister in 2006.

More recently, Japan sent the first international rescue team to China after the Sichuan earthquake as well as the first foreign medical team. While China did not want Japan to send relief supplies using Japanese military aircraft, a Japanese destroyer, the Sazanami, has visited Zhanjiang port since then at the invitation of the Chinese Navy. The visit followed that of a Chinese missile destroyer, the Shenzhen, to Japan last year.

These are small but important steps. President Hu will visit Japan again next week for the Group of Eight summit in Hokkaido as the guest of Fukuda. That will enable the two countries to take another step forward. It will require many such steps before the two governments can forge a relationship of trust and before their two peoples can gradually reduce hostile sentiments toward one another. But there is no other way.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist. E-mail: Frank.ching@gmail.com