Teikoku Oil Co. President Masatoshi Sugioka said Friday the company was willing to explore for gas in the East China Sea despite the risk of Chinese interruption, but it wanted assurance from Tokyo that its workers on the project would be safe.

The government in July issued an exploratory license to Teikoku Oil for three sites in the East China Sea near natural gas fields China is developing.

Beijing has criticized Tokyo’s moves to develop the region.

China’s rigs are just inside its side of the median line that Japan recognizes as dividing the exclusive economic zones of the two Asian powers, but Beijing has not accepted it. Tokyo fears that resources on its side of that line might be sucked up by the Chinese project.

Beijing sets the dividing line at the continental shelf, very near Okinawa and encompassing Taiwan.

“We’ll never be able to conduct test drilling if we stick to the condition that there can be no interruptions” by the Chinese, Sugioka said in an interview. “Since we asked (the government for permission to develop the site), we must accept a bit of difficulty.”

However, Sugioka said the firm required an assurance from the government that its rig workers would be safe before they launched the operation, as it had concerns that drilling in the region might exacerbate an already rocky diplomatic situation between Japan and China.

Sugioka said that while an agreement between the Japanese and Chinese governments on joint gas development in the disputed waters would be ideal, “We do feel a responsibility to shoulder some of the risks.”

Skeptics have questioned whether the project is economically viable, given the region’s distance from Japan. But Teikoku’s president said piping natural gas to Japan from the East China Sea would “pay” even with the huge startup costs taken into account.

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