Ambassador upbeat on gas row progress

by Kaho Shimizu

Japan and China may be able to resolve their dispute over gas exploration rights in the East China Sea even before the expected visit to Japan by Chinese President Hu Jintao in April, the Chinese ambassador to Japan said in an interview Friday.

“I’m quite confident that they will work out something acceptable to both sides. Of course this is a difficult and sensitive issue . . . but we’ll speed up our work and try to resolve the issue at the earliest possible date,” Ambassador Cui Tiankai said. The dispute stems from the differences over where each nation’s sea boundaries lie, and the two sides have yet to reach an accord to decide the location for the joint development of the gas field. But Japan and China are hoping to reach agreement by the time of Hu’s visit to maintain friendly ties that have been enhanced by Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s visit to China last month.

Cui stressed that Japan and China share the fundamental position that maintaining good bilateral relations serves the interests of both countries.

“My impression from my contact with people in both countries is optimistic,” said Cui, who took the ambassadorial position in September. “All the people I met here since my arrival want to develop and strengthen relations with China and it is also true with people back in China.”

Fukuda, known for his pro-China stance, received an exceptionally warm welcome from the Chinese side when he met with Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao during his recent visit.

Relations between the two countries were frosty during former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s tenure between 2001 and 2006 in part because of his persistent visits to the contentious war-related Yasukuni Shrine.

During Fukuda’s visit, the two countries agreed to cooperate on a number of issues, including energy-saving and environmental technologies.

China is beset with pollution problems as it undergoes rapid economic growth and hopes to receive technological assistance from Japan in this area. Cui said the environment and energy-saving are the new areas that will serve the interests of both sides, especially given that Japan is ending its official development assistance to China in this fiscal year through March 31.

“Japan’s ODA did play a big role (in the development of China),” Cui said. “I think there is an opportunity for Japan to continue and expand its financial cooperation with China, particularly with environmental cooperation and technology transfer.”

The gas dispute stems in part from the East China Sea median line Japan has drawn to separate each nation’s sea zone. China doesn’t recognize the line, but has only set up drilling platforms on its side. Japan, however, is worried that gas China extracts comes from a field that stretches into its territory.

Later in the day at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, foreign reporters pressed Cui for his opinion of the different viewpoints his nation and Japan take of their shared wartime history.

Cui said that what is important is that the two sides work together to understand each other better.

“We certainly don’t want to focus (too much) on the past,” he said. If Japan and China have different views, Cui said: “It’s important to gain an understanding of what happened to make sure that it’ll never happen again.”