Japan says gap remains with China on sea
Agence France Presse
TOKYO — Japan and China remain at loggerheads over their claims to the energy-rich East China Sea despite a new round of talks, a Japanese official said Friday.
Asia's two largest economies, which are both major energy importers, are locked in a long-running row over their territorial waters and have held regular talks on the issue since 2004.
The latest one-day session took place behind closed doors in Beijing Thursday.
"On the development of the East China Sea there's a considerable gulf to be filled between the two nations," Tomohiko Taniguchi, the deputy press secretary of Japan's foreign ministry, told reporters.
"The Japanese government has repeatedly requested that a high-level political decision be made on the Chinese side about the way in which the East China Sea gas field should be developed jointly between China and Japan."
China began drilling in the gas-rich area in 2003, provoking outrage in Tokyo.
Hopes for a settlement were raised after Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao paid a landmark visit to Japan in April and agreed with his then Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, to find an amicable settlement.
But talks since then have yielded no apparent progress. China says the entire area which is the focus of the dispute is part of its waters.
The key impasse is the definition of the maritime border. Japan sees the delineation of the border as a precondition to any arrangement. Only after the lines on the maps establish who owns what can both sides discuss "joint development."
China sees the definition of a border as a source of conflict. In the interests of peace, discussion of the border should be put off as long as possible, possibly indefinitely.
For those of us raised in the Westphalian system, Japan's position seems the more reasonable. Putting off the discussion of legal ownership seems to promise neverending disputes over niggling differences in assumptions. Start with a strict definition of rights and privileges, the argument goes, and the relationship will run itself, like a windup clock.
The Chinese solution of gas development first/borders later does promise an ardous, aggravating slog through the swamp of relationship maintenance. However, given the circumstances, being forced into nag and quibble over what seem to be eons may not be such a bad thing.
The first point pushing the argument in the direction of the Chinese offer is geography. Japanese companies may drill on "Japan's side" of the border (a border that the Chinese are honoring in practice, while disputing in theory) all they want. The only customers to whom they can pipe the gas, however, are Chinese. The Okinawa Trench makes it impossible to lay a pipeline delivering the gas to Japanese customers. While the prospect of a giant mid-ocean LNG plant may have Kawasaki Heavy, Mitsubishi Heavy and Ishikawajima Harima breathing heavily, it is not a reasonable solution. The Chinese price for linking up with China's gas network: non-negotiation of the border.
The second is Chinese internal politics. Elements of the Chinese polity with extreme nationalist sentiments, particularly in the armed forces, have had to sit tight in mounting frustration as the more politic elements have been showing China's neighbors a magnanimous Chinese face. Over the past decade and a half the pre-Republican era tributary states on China's periphery have been rewarded with border treaties and friendship agreements. Even Russia, which wrested control of Chinese territories north of the Amur in the 19th century and with whom China fought a short border war in the 70s, has been rewarded with a final settlement of their disputed border areas.
(The Russian exception should probably be seen as an example of China playing the long game. Russian sovereignty over the Russian Far East will be an academic point in the not-to-distant future. Demographics and migration patterns point to an effective Chinese takeover of all economic life by 2030.)
Only two states remain with whom Chinese political leaders cannot discuss borders: Japan and India. Neither country was ever party to the Chinese tributary state system. Both owe their current global status to their effective cloaking of traditional Asian civilizations in Western skins (in Japan's case a full-bore, on-the-Road-to-Damascus conversion to the Westphalian state system proved the club with which it could beat China into submission for 80 years). Concessions to either would raise outcries within the Chinese establishment of betrayal of the motherland.
So when Wen Jiabao made his offer during his April visit of joint development of the gas fields without a discussion of borders, it neither a subterfuge to undermine Japan's sovereignty nor a last-second gambit to avoid the Law of the Sea's looming imposition of default borders (the bitter poison pill that undergirds the Japanese position at the talks). It was an appeal to make the best of a bad situation.
It is also not as if China and Japan have no history of playing "let's pretend we are both sovereign here." The extraordinary 250 year long game of make believe over the political status of the Ryukyuan Kingdom demonstrates that Chinese and Japanese can simultaneously presume sovereignty over the same plot of land.
Indeed, looking at the history of Sino-Japanese relations since the imposition of Westphalian state system upon Asia, the two ancient polities are rather better off when they do.