Offshore oil dispute behind Sino-Japanese tensions

A dispute over offshore oil and gas rights in waters claimed by both countries as part of their "exclusive economic zone" seems to be behind recent tensions between China and Japan—ostensibly sparked by official Japanese revisionism over its role in World War II. The popular protests in the streets ignited by new textbook portrayals of Japanese aggression in the 1930s are mirrored by diplomatic spats over industrial access to the East China Sea.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman accused Japan April 14 of a "serious provocation to the rights of China" by granting two Japanese firms rights to drill for oil and gas in the Xihu Trench, an area east of Shanghai spanning the maritime economic zone partially claimed by both China and Japan. The spokesman, Qin Gang, said the Japanese had turned "a deaf ear to the righteous position of China and attempted to impose [Japan’s] unilaterally conceived ‘demarcation line’ on the Chinese side." He added: "China has never ever recognized and will never recognize this." (Oil & Gas Journal, April 14)

China, in turn, has started developing offshore gas fields at Chunxiao and Duanqiao, in waters Japan says extend into its national zone. The two governments are at odds over how to draw the line. Explains one Japanese newspaper: "Tokyo has claimed that the boundary should be a median line drawn at an equal distance from the coasts of the two countries. Beijing has claimed that Chinese territory includes waters near Okinawa Prefecture that contain the Senkaku Islands, which are originally Japan’s territory, based on the principle that takes into consideration the natural extension of the continental land mass into the sea. This means that a continental shelf extends from the Chinese continent to the seabed under the islands. But the equal distance principle is currently in use as an international rule to demarcate disputed waters." (Daily Yomiuri, April 15)

Chinese newspapers refer to the Senkaku Islands as the Diaoyu Islands, and nationalist passions on both sides are inflamed over this tiny outcropping of barren rock. The dispute has become embroiled in that over World War II historical memory. A Japanese rightist group has apparently placed a beacon on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as a symbol of their country’s sovereignty there, and the Japanese government has made no move to remove it. This, in turn, is protested as "a serious infringement on China’s sovereignty over its territory" by the official committee preparing commemorations for the 60th anniversary of China’s victory in what the Chinese call the "War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression." (People’s Daily Online, April 15)

Japan’s approval of school textbooks that play down World War II atrocities (e.g. calling the Rape of Nanking an "incident" rather than a massacre) has sparked huge, angry protests in several Chinese cities, in which Japanese flags were burned and Japanese-made cars smashed. The officially "spontaneous" protests have brought out up to 20,000, and have clearly been encouraged by authorities. They have been heavily policed, but helmeted phalanxes of riot police stood by as protesters smashed windows at Beijing’s Japanese embassy. The protests have predictably sparked counter-protests in Japan, which have been equally angry if smaller and less overtly encouraged by the authorities. An unkown gunman even fired into the Yokohama branch of the Bank of China, while a bullet casing was mailed to the Chinese consulate in Osaka, sparking a police investigation. (The Scotsman, PBS NewsHour, April 13)

Meanwhile, just to the north of the East China Sea, a similar dispute is heating up across the Korea Strait in the Sea of Japan between Tokyo and South Korea, another country with bitter memories of Japan’s World War II occupation. At issue are a smattering of barren islets that South Korea calls Dokdo and Japan calls Takeshima. South Korea has physically occupied them since the 1950s and keeps a small police detachment there. But to generate support for Japan’s claim, a local assembly on the nearby Japanese coast voted to make Feb. 22 "Takeshima Day"–sparking protests in Seoul and throughout South Korea. A South Korean man and a woman each cut off their finger in protest of Japan’s claim, and another tried to set himself on fire. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun warned the dispute could lead to a "diplomatic war." (AP, April 13)