• The Associated Press

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A reported Chinese ban on ship traffic around disputed gas fields in the East China Sea could violate the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said Monday.

Japan had requested confirmation from China of news reports saying Beijing has imposed the ban while Chinese workers lay pipelines and cables in the area, he said.

“We have expressed our concern. This notice, if implemented, may breach our sovereign rights and violate the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Abe told reporters.

“We have requested that the Chinese side clearly and immediately respond to our inquiry,” he said, adding that Beijing had given Tokyo assurances that it would look into the matter and respond.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Japan would “respond calmly” to the development.

Japan and China have been deadlocked in negotiations over rights to the Pinghu gas field, which lies in an area that straddles a median line that Japan considers the border between the two countries’ territorial claims.

China, however, makes a wider territorial claim that includes the entire field.

Under the U.N. convention, which both Japan and China have signed, coastal countries can claim an economic zone extending 200 nautical miles from their shores. The disputed reserves lie within both countries’ claims, and the U.N. has until May 2009 to rule on the matter.

Media reports over the weekend said Chinese maritime authorities have posted a notice that all unauthorized ship traffic would be banned around the Pinghu field from March 1 to Sept. 30.

Both China and Japan hope to exploit undersea gas reserves in the East China Sea to drive fuel-hungry economies.

China claims it has rights to the gas, but Tokyo says the two countries should share them. Repeated meetings between both countries aimed at resolving the dispute have ended in disagreement.

China has been probing for gas just inside its side of the median line.