China-Japan relations change lanes

Until today I have stayed quiet regarding the excitement around the “deal between China and Japan”: to “jointly” develop gas fields in the disputed EEZ region of the East China Sea. I have been cautious because rather than seeing an acceleration of China-Japan relations, I think this deal is simply a matter of changing lanes.

Japan and China’s dispute over gas deposits in the East China Sea revolve around the demarcation of each countries’ respective Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) an exclusive economic zone is an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea where the coastal state has “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources.” According to the UNCLOS Articles 56 and 57, coastal states have a right to claim up to 200 nautical miles as an EEZ. Problematically, the East China Sea is only 360 nautical miles across at its widest point. Japan has proposed an EEZ border at the halfway point between the two countries (On the “Yomiuri’s map”: the orange line is the median and the “#” symbols are the four fields in question). China has insisted on the principle of “natural prolongation” of the continental shelf, which would place the border along the Ryukyu Island chain.

The UNCLOS stipulates in cases of contested zones interested parties should begin development negotiations and come to an agreement both sides can accept. Until now Japan has seen the demarcation of the maritime border as a precondition to any agreement. China on the other hand sees the definition of a border as a source of dispute, and wishes to put the border issue off as long as possible. Five years ago China started development on one of the fields (Shirakaba/Chungxiao) located to the west of the median line, angering the Japanese who are concerned that the undersea gas field may extend to its side of the line. The United Nations has previously stated a decision on global offshore territorial claims will be made by May 2009. This deal may be the beginnings of an agreement which will preclude any such decisions.

However, I think that it is important to clarify that there are really two points of concern tied up in the gas fields issue: 1) energy security; and 2) territoriality.

This deal is by no means a solution to Japan or China’s energy dependency problems. The amounts of gas we are talking about are relatively small, as “Jun Okumura has pointed out”: This morning’s Asahi ran a headline calling the deal a “cooperation more than profit” model (rieki yori renkei moderu). That is really what is being played up about this deal: cooperation. China’s rapidly growing thirst for energy resources and Japan’s utter dependency on imported energy resources has been a touchstone for pundits forecasting conflict in East Asia since the 1990s. Oil on the fire as it were. This deal shows that energy is not a zero sum game in East Asia. There are choices available to all sides.

That brings me to territoriality, which in foreign policy terms, I think is potentially the bigger problem. Japan has territoriality issues with all its neighbouring countries. This deal does not solve territoriality in the East China Sea. In order to push forward this deal with China the Japanese have somewhat conceded on the border demarcation precondition, which I think is natural progression for a post-modern state (to use “Robert Cooper’s terminology”: However, I fear that China is still a “modern” country, who could re-invoke a doctrine of strict sovereignty at any time. Territoriality is one of the key elements in China foreign policy (Paracel Islands, Senkaku Islands, Tibet, Chinese Turkestan, etc). It can always get more energy from Africa and the Middle East.

As “Tobias has said”:, the impact of this deal should not be overstated. Something as “trivial” as “online public outcry”: could put the brakes on everything. How the public perceives the issue — as one of energy security or territoriality — will play an important role in whether or not this deal becomes the foundation for lasting cooperation in the future.

Read more about the details of the deal at the sites below:

“Observing Japan”:
Shisaku “here”: and “here”:
Jun Okumura “here”: “here”: and “here”:

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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2 Responses to China-Japan relations change lanes

  1. sun bin says:

    well….i think both china and japan are ‘modern’.
    and USA as well.

    only EU has really stepped a foot into the postmodern stage.

    anyway, i agree with most of shisaku and okumura’s analysis. i.e.
    1) there is little economic value for japan (esp the cost of delivery, as i blogged 2.5 years ago
    2) since there isn’t much to lose economically for both sides, it must be legal/territorial
    3) but as we know and both govt stated. there is no agreement at all regarding territory.

    therefore, this is more of a symbolic deal. and to settle some rather meaningless dispute over almost nothing material. the 2 govts are making senses and set aside the difference, while paving way for peaceful and economic cooperation in other areas.

    (i have also made collect some maps)

  2. Younghusband says:

    I agree that they seem to be setting aside their differences for cooperation in other areas. Overall, I am quite positive on Sino-Japanese relations as long as the two countries are talking. What causes doubt in me is China’s ability to cut off talks in an instant. Domestic politics is ever so important in both countries.

    As for the “modernity” of Japan I disagree. I don’t know if you are familiar with Cooper’s categorization, but I think Japan cannot be considered modern for the same reason Japan is not considered “normal.” Japan’s sovereignty is closely tied to the US, and it is in its interest to remain in this relationship. Of course you cannot compare this to the EU, but it is definitely not comparable to other “modern” states.