Japan rejects China’s Senkaku gas offer

by Hiroko Nakata

Japan on Wednesday rejected a Chinese proposal to jointly develop two gas-rich areas in the East China Sea, one of which is on the Japanese side of the median boundary near the disputed Senkaku Islands.

China floated the new proposal during a two-day bilateral meeting in Beijing on gas exploration in the East China Sea. The talks ended Tuesday with no breakthrough.

At the heart of a long-running territorial dispute, the Japan-controlled, uninhabited Senkaku Islands are also claimed by Taiwan and China, which refers to the islets as Diaoyu. The seabed surrounding the islets is said to contain significant gas deposits.

“We cannot accept China’s proposal,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said at a news conference Wednesday. “We want China to consider our proposal well to make the East China Sea a sea of friendship.”

Abe declined to elaborate on China’s proposal, saying negotiations are continuing. At the Beijing talks, the two sides agreed to hold another round of negotiations in Tokyo as soon as possible.

According to sources involved in the talks, China proposed that the two countries jointly tap natural resources in two undersea areas.

One is near the Senkakus and the other is north of there and just inside China’s side of the median line — the demarcation line proposed by Japan to settle the maritime boundary where the two countries’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones overlap.

The Senkakus are on the Japanese side of the line.

Japan would find it difficult to accept the Chinese proposal as it stands because several Japanese energy companies have already applied to the government for exploration rights in the area.

China rejects the median line, insisting it has rights to marine resources to the edge of its continental shelf right up to near Okinawa and encompassing Taiwan.

Tokyo is concerned about ongoing gas projects on the Chinese side of the line, which it believes could siphon off resources that may lie under Japan-claimed waters.

“There is still a gap of understanding (regarding the median line),” Abe said at the news conference.

Tokyo had previously proposed joint development of four gas fields near the boundary, but China’s latest offer focuses on the northern and southern parts of the fields.

Of the four gas fields, a particular point of contention is the Chunxiao field, which lies a few kilometers from the median line on the Chinese side. The Chinese developer of the site has completed exploration in the area and says production could begin soon.

On Tuesday, a source in the Japanese delegation said China once again refused to hand over information on the Chunxiao gas field, which Japan calls Shirakaba.

The latest round of talks follows up on a visit to Beijing in February by trade minister Toshihiro Nikai, who is known for his pro-China views.

Nikai’s trip had raised hopes for a reduction in tensions between the two sides, tensions exacerbated in part by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s contentious visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

Information from Kyodo added