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  • The East China Sea Gas Fields: The Dethorning of Japan–China Relations and the Breaking-through of the Japan–China Median Line

The East China Sea Gas Fields: The Dethorning of Japan–China Relations and the Breaking-through of the Japan–China Median Line


On 18 June the governments of Japan and China announced the “Japan–China agreement” on the problem of gas fields in the East China Sea. Its content, when scrutinized from the various points of view of the left, center and right, was—from whichever standpoint—the two outcomes of “dethorning Japan–China relations” and a “breaking-through of the Japan–China median line”. Putting it differently, there was the outcome of having a “breaking-through of the Japan–China median line”, and then of a “dethorning of Japan–China relations” being realized.

Who Broke through the Median Line?

Regarding the boundary line of the exclusive economic zones, or EEZ boundary lines, between Japan and China in the East China Sea, Japan has advocated a Japan–China median line which links the points equidistant from the coastlines of the two countries, as opposed to China which asserts the Okinawa Trough, which the continental shelf extends to, as the boundary line, under the “principle of the natural extension of the continental shelf”.

The point is that while the so-called “Japan–China median line” is Japan’s claim, it means that it has been broken through by the current “Japan–China agreement”. It goes without saying that the side that broke through is China.

The current “Japan–China agreement”, as is well known, has established the 2,700-square-kilometer “Japan–China joint development zone” straddling the Japan–China median line, an area roughly equal to that of Kanagawa Prefecture. Based on this agreement, China’s right to undertake economic activity on the Japanese side of the median line has become a matter that has been approved by Japan, and it means that the Japan–China median line which Japan claims has become a line which it is OK to breach.

Naturally Japan also has obtained the right to undertake economic activity on the Chinese side of the median line, but Japan has not to date sought an EEZ on the Chinese side of the median line, and will probably not do so henceforward either. In addition it has also not undertaken development of gas fields in this area of the East China Sea.

The opposing Chinese side, however, has continued to claim the Japanese side of the median line up to the Okinawa Trough as a Chinese EEZ, and has continued its development of offshore gas fields in scant fashion over the last 20-odd years. While to date it has only been active on the Chinese side of the median line claimed by Japan, crossing over the median line has henceforward become possible in theory.

If the East China Sea gas fields hadn’t become a problem between Japan and China, and Japan and China hadn’t negotiated the matter of the East China Sea gas fields or the negotiations hadn’t reached agreement, then China’s activity would just have been the continuation of its scant extraction of gas on the Chinese side of the Japan–China median line, and there wouldn’t have been any breaching and crossing of the Japan–China median line.

Incidentally, all already understand that a considerable volume of gas won’t come out of this area of sea. The Chinese gas fields will not have such a long life, and some day will dry up and be abandoned. The East China Sea’s return to being a quiet sea is a question of time.

A Thorn Created by Whom?

So who has made the East China Sea gas fields a problem, and created a thorn in Japan–China relations?

Let’s follow the process of the East China Sea gas fields becoming a problem.

It started off on 28 May 2004—the edition of the Nagoya newspaper “The Chunichi Shimbun” for that day reported that China was developing the gas fields on the Chinese side close to the East China Sea Japan–China median line. After a one-day interlude, the media, including all of the major newspapers and television companies, was making a lot of noise about it. Then ten days on, on 8 June, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan raised the issue officially with China.

The development of the East China Sea gas fields by China is in no way something that began circa 2004. For a twenty-year period, from way back to the mid 1980s, China had carried out development activity—and moreover not independent development by China—in collaboration with major petroleum companies from the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands. In the previous 20 years no problem whatsoever had been raised by Japan.

As you are probably aware, it was in June 2004 that the Japanese side made the East China Sea gas fields an issue.

I have inquired the reason for this of Japanese diplomats, have scrutinized their set, vague answers, and I have tried to summarize them in my own interpretation as follows.

The development of the East China Sea gas fields by China all took place on the Chinese side of the Japan–China median line, and moreover, from it not being likely that a considerable volume of gas would flow out, such development by China rather created a fait accompli where China recognized and upheld the Japan–China median line asserted by Japan. Because it was an advantageous development stance-wise for Japan, the Japanese side remained silent and watched. In 2004, however, Japan turned its national policy around.

The Koizumi cabinet of that time brought up all the issues which would cause antagonism with China, including the raising of a philosophy and policy of “values diplomacy” such as Yasukuni Shrine visits by the Prime Minister, making an issue of the East China Sea gas fields, the Taiwan provision in the strategic objectives of the Japan–US alliance (February 2005), links between Japan, the United States, Australia and India, and the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity”.

Making the East China Sea Gas Fields a Non-Issue

Regarding Japan making the development of the East China Sea gas field a problem in 2004, there is also the explanation that it is because it became known that at that time the Chinese had siphoned off gas from the sea bed from the Japanese side of the median line. Taro Aso, the then-Minister of Foreign Affairs, pursued the “straw effect” with the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In fact this “straw logic” of Mr. Aso was itself something that rattled the United States on the other side of the Pacific. According to Ryosei Kokubun (a Keio University professor) in the United States in 2005 armed conflict on the median line in the East China Sea was seriously anticipated and discussed.

Although the Japanese government and public opinion were not aware of it, Aso’s “straw logic” was originally Hussein’s. The Saddam Hussein who was the President of Iraq. Saddam Hussein, when he invaded Kuwait, claimed that Kuwait had siphoned the resources of the Iraqi side from underground in the Rumaila oil field. The Japanese government, continuing on from the Iraqi Saddam Hussein regime, was the second government in the world to use “straw logic.”

Globally oil and gas fields straddle multiple countries, and moreover there are many cases of them extending across multiple developing companies, but in the common sense of the business world they hold that it is a good idea to make a spacing of 100 meters. China’s East China Sea gas fields lie five kilometers from the Japan–China median line. Consequently, what is seen by the eyes of the world is Japan’s lack of common sense, and in addition a lack of common sense in using Saddam Hussein’s “straw logic” without any qualm.

There also hasn’t been a single country in international society which supports Japan’s position. Probably because the United States is well acquainted with Saddam Hussein’s “straw logic,” it began to worry about Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s “China perspective”, and in Kyoto in November 2005 President George W. Bush went to the extent of personally censuring him. Under pressure from China’s anti-Japanese demonstrations, the call from the United States for an improvement in relations, and Japan’s isolation in international society, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, over the opposition of Shoichi Nakagawa, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, accepted China’s proposal for negotiations on joint development. Including the subsequent Abe cabinet, however, negotiations were made but agreement was not, and in other words there was a position of not making the matter a non-issue.

From September 2007, the period of the Fukuda cabinet, the problem between Japan and China of prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine naturally went away. The Taiwan provision in the strategic objectives of the Japan–US alliance was excluded by the United States during the Abe cabinet. Although the Abe cabinet worked hard for so-called “values diplomacy”, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda unceremoniously abandoned it. Amid such a renewed turnaround of Japan’s national policy, the East China Sea gas field problem became the last remaining thorn in Japan–China relations. Wherein the Japanese side which had created the thorn took responsibility and made a number of concessions, and that meant they brought about the making of the matter into a non-issue

Regarding the current Japan–China agreement, I think the goal of the authorities in both countries was the pulling out of the final thorn in Japan–China relations, through making the East China Sea gas field problem into a non-issue. Subsequent negotiations on the Japan–China median line have been shelved, and moreover, with the point that a sizeable volume of gas doesn’t look like it’s going to flow out, joint development on a substantial scale will also not likely happen. Via this agreement, however, the East China Sea gas field problem will fade from view in public opinion in both countries. Which is to say, this is not the end to the solution of the problem, but a happy ending where the matter will continue being made into a non-issue.

[Translated by ERINA]