• Kyodo News

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China has transported “unknown” equipment to an offshore facility under development at an East China Sea gas field where both Japan and China have claimed exploration rights, but Tokyo has not yet confirmed drilling has started there, outgoing Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said Friday.

Okada admitted that the government acknowledged the transfer of the equipment to the natural gas field known in Japan as Shirakaba and in China as Chunxiao a few days earlier and repeatedly inquired about it through high-level diplomatic channels. Beijing told Tokyo the equipment was brought in for “repair work,” he said.

Aerial photos taken by the Self-Defense Forces revealed the transfer of the equipment to the gas field, according to government sources.

The development comes at a time when the two countries are in a dispute over the arrest of a Chinese captain after his fishing boat collided with Japan Coast Guard patrol boats near the Senkaku Islands administered by Japan but claimed by China.

China had refrained from starting its drilling operation at the field given Japan’s opposition to its unilateral exploration, but Beijing is believed to have hardened its stance following last week’s maritime incident near the Senkaku Islands.

Okada said at a news conference he “strongly expects” that China will refrain from starting gas extraction from the field as such a move would run counter to its promise.

In June 2008, the two countries agreed that Japanese companies would invest in the development of the gas field that had been commenced by China. In line with the accord, Beijing has yet to start drilling.

In January, Okada conveyed to his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi during talks in Tokyo that Japan would take countermeasures if China starts to extract gas from the field unilaterally.

If China does begins drilling, Japan may consider countering by test-drilling on its own in the sea nearby, possibly increasing bilateral tensions.

The two countries launched talks aimed at signing a treaty over gas field development in late July, but China has postponed negotiations following the Senkaku incident.

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