By Pranamita Baruah*
Japan and China have long been uneasy neighbours in East Asia due to their long drawn disputes over historical and territorial issues. Until 2010, their territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea was just a minor irritant in the bilateral relations. However, incidents like the arrest of the captain of Chinese fishing vessel by Japanese coastguards near the waters of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in 2010, the nationalisation of the same islands by Japan in 2012, China’s establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) near the Senkakus and its repeated intrusion into Japanese territorial waters near those islands, etc. brought the Japan-China dispute in the East China Sea to the forefront. It must be noted that the East China Sea is reportedly rich in oil and natural gas deposits. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that the region has approximately 200 million barrels of oil (MMbbl) in proved and probable reserves. Naturally, Japan and China, two major energy importers in the world, are naturally interested in exploring and exploiting the energy resources in the East China Sea. The two countries’ interest in the disputed region’s energy sources seems to have aggravated the tensions in Japan-China relations further.
The situation could deteriorate in the coming days following the revelation of China’s construction of offshore structures related to gas fields in the East China Sea.
On 21 July, the Japanese Cabinet approved the 2015 defence white paper, titled ‘The Defense of Japan 2015’. Arguing that China, in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea regions, continues to “show an uncompromising stance toward realizing its unilateral claims”, the white paper expressed strong concern over China’s ‘coercive’ maritime advances there. The white paper insists that in those two regions, China has been acting in “high handed” manner to alter the status quo by force. It further alleges that intrusions by Chinese vessels in the disputed waters surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have become routine.
More importantly, the white paper has raised objections against China’s construction of 16 offshore structures in the East China Sea region. Those structures, located near the median line between the shorelines of China and Japan, are believed to be used for the exploration and exploitation of gas fields in the region. Japan has argued that China’s unilateral move to develop them constitutes a clear violation of the 2008 bilateral agreement on joint gas field development in the East China Sea.
In that agreement, both the countries had agreed to “cooperate, without prejudice to their legal positions, during the transitional period pending agreement on the delimitation” of the sea boundary.
On 22 July, the Japanese government released some aerial photographs and maps of China-developed offshore structures in the East China Sea. The Japanese foreign ministry has also recently uploaded in its own website a map showing the locations of those structures along with their photos. Those structures are reportedly equipped with heliports and large cranes.
Japan is equally concerned about the economic and security threats posed by those gas fields. On the economic front, it has been pointed out by some observers that while for now, China has developed the structures on the Chinese side of the median line between China and Japan, and that Beijing might change its stance in future. In fact, China, in its search for more energy sources, could eventually connect the existing offshore structures with the gas and oil deposits on the Japanese side of the median line beneath the waters. This would enable China to siphon off gas from the Japanese side. Such a development could certainly have an adverse impact on the Japanese economy.
As for security concerns, some observers have argued that in the coming years, if Japan-China relations turn more tenuous, China might decide to convert the offshore structures in the East China Sea to military facilities. That could pose a serious security threat to Japan. It is worth noting that while in November 2013, China unilaterally established an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, it has yet to install radars in that region. However the radars installed in mainland China are reportedly not effective in covering the entire ADIZ. To deal with that challenge, China might decide to install air defense radar systems in the offshore structures and use them as military bases.
China has naturally taken a critical stance against Japan’s latest white paper. It has alleged that the said paper is “artificially creating tensions” and “stirring up fears about China’s military threats.” However it has not taken any step in assuaging Japan’s growing concerns over the offshore construction in the East China Sea so far. Instead, the Chinese foreign ministry has issued a statement alleging that by releasing the China’s offshore construction activity in the East China Sea, Japan would not only provoke confrontation between the two countries, but also complicate the management of the said region.
Despite Japan’s critical stance on the Chinese development of the offshore structures, it might not have a serious impact on Japan-China relations as of now. However, the scenario might change dramatically once Japan’s new security bills come into force in September this year. One of the major objectives of those bills is to expand the role of the Japanese Self Defense Force (SDF) to respond to ‘grey zone’ infringements of Japanese territorial waters as well as airspace short of an armed attack. Thus the enactment of the new laws would enhance the SDF’s capability to deal with Chinese vessels’ intrusions near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands more effectively. In such an event, even a small incident in the East China Sea in the coming days could escalate into armed confrontation between the two countries due to miscommunication or miscalculation. Moreover, as the two countries’ need for energy grows, either of them, especially China, might decide to resort to force to resolve the territorial dispute in the East China Sea to deal with rising demands of their economies. This would undoubtedly turn the bilateral relationship all the more volatile.
* Pranamita Baruah
Visiting Fellow, Sigur Center for Asian Studies, George Washington University, Washington DC