Tense relations between Japan and China risk being further inflamed by their competing claims to undersea natural gas and oil deposits.
But Japanese energy executives say the two sides should try what companies battling for ownership of natural resources often do: share.
“Standard oil-and-gas industry practice is to talk things over and determine the most efficient way to go about developing disputed fields,” said Koichi Shimomura, a spokesman for Japan Petroleum Exploration Co. “We hope both sides can reach some agreement instead of adopting a confrontational, first-come, first-serve approach.”
Ties between Tokyo and Beijing have sunk to their lowest level in decades following a series of recent violent protests in China over new Japanese textbooks that critics complain play down Japan’s wartime atrocities.
The clash over gas fields — a key source of energy for the two countries’ massive economies — along a disputed border in the East China Sea has only added to the antipathy.
The rift partly stems from the two Asian powers’ disagreement over where to draw their sea border.
The East China Sea divides China’s eastern coast and Japan’s southern island chain of Okinawa.
Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal countries can claim an economic zone extending 200 nautical miles from their shores. The United Nations says it will decide on offshore territorial claims by May 2009.
Since signing the convention in 1996, both sides have claimed ownership of resources in the East China Sea.
China has set up drilling platforms and begun exploring the gas fields just on its side of the sea border drawn by Japan.
Fearing China will deplete fields that might stretch into Japan’s economic zone, Tokyo last week announced it would spend the next few months processing drilling-rights applications submitted decades ago — a move China called “a serious provocation.”
The confrontation has Japanese deep-sea drilling companies wary of being stuck in the middle of a bilateral diplomatic scuffle — or being attacked by China’s navy.
“If there is no diplomatic resolution and no guarantee that our workers will be safe, we as a private company cannot just jump in there and start working,” a Teikoku Oil Co. official said on condition of anonymity.
Japanese officials say they are open to possible cooperation.
“The gas fields are a promising source of energy,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said last week. “Our aim is to transform this from a sea of confrontation to a sea of cooperation.”
It’s hardly unusual for countries with overlapping sea borders to collaborate in gas projects.
Malaysia and Thailand have set up a joint venture to drill for gas in the Gulf of Thailand, where their economic zones bisect. Each nation has a 50 percent share and they evenly share the proceeds of gas sales.
Japan and South Korea have worked together, too. Since the 1980s, the two have collaborated on extracting gas from the East China Sea floor, just north of the area China and Japan are arguing over.
Teikoku and several other Japanese oil companies first applied for drilling rights in the late 1960s following a U.N. report about possible rich undersea deposits. But China made the first move, launching an exploration operation and construction on an undersea pipeline last year.
Observers say it would be cheaper to build a pipeline to the Asian mainland because the gas deposits are closer to the mainland than Japan’s biggest islands.
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