Beijing is believed to have granted Chinese companies the rights to conduct natural gas exploration in Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea, trade chief Shoichi Nakagawa said Sunday.

“We have obtained information” that natural gas development lots have been marked by China at “several locations within Japan’s EEZ,” the minister of economy, trade and industry said on a Fuji TV political talk show.

It is the first time information has surfaced on Chinese moves to carry out a gas project inside the Japanese zone.

Nakagawa indicated that the Chinese decision would trigger a diplomatic dispute, saying, “Ignoring the EEZ is unfriendly.”

Tokyo will ask Beijing whether it has given the green light to the gas project during a bilateral working-level meeting expected to be held before the end of the month, he said.

Japan and China have been at odds over resources development issues in the East China Sea, mainly stemming from differences in defining an official demarcation line for their EEZs.

A Chinese consortium is currently carrying out natural gas projects in the East China Sea on the Chinese side in an area extremely close to the EEZ median boundary line set by Japan.

China has said its EEZ is bigger than the area designated by Japan.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing called for working-level negotiations over gas project issues during talks with his Japanese counterpart, Nobutaka Machimura, in Hanoi earlier this month on the sidelines of a summit of the Asia-Europe Meeting.

Nakagawa stressed the importance of holding negotiations with Beijing as soon as possible to confirm the facts about the ongoing and near-term natural gas projects around the EEZ median line dividing the two countries.

The trade minister said Japan could be placed at a disadvantage if Tokyo does not say “what it needs to say.”

The government has previously asked China to provide information regarding the ongoing gas projects near Japan’s EEZ, fearing that Chinese companies will also pump out resources from Japanese territorial waters.

Japan has said the source of natural gas on the Chinese side is connected to the Japanese territory beneath the seabed.

But China has rejected providing the information as it does not recognize Japan’s median line.

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