Global Insider: China-Japan Territorial Disputes in East China Sea

An incident earlier this month in which a Chinese survey vessel chased off a Japanese coast guard vessel in the East China Sea is putting further strain on longstanding territorial disputes between China and Japan, despite diplomatic efforts to resolve them. In an e-mail interview, Brookings Institution Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies Director Richard C. Bush III explains the current state of Japan-China maritime disputes.

WPR: What are the current territorial disputes between Japan and China in the East China Sea?

Richard Bush: Japan and China have one territorial dispute: That concerns islands north and east of Taiwan that China calls “Diaoyu” and Japan calls “Senkaku.” (The Taiwan government also claims them). The islands are currently under Japanese administration. They are at issue because of the long-held but unproven belief that there are rich oil and gas fields below the ocean floor. In addition, China and Japan are at odds over the rights to exploit oil, gas, and minerals below the floor of the East China Sea east of Shanghai. The sticking point is how far Japan’s “exclusive economic zone” extends west and south of the Home Islands. China argues that it has rights to resources under the entire continental shelf. Japan proposes drawing a line more or less down the middle of the shelf.

WPR: What mechanisms are in place to resolve them, and what is the status of any negotiations?

Bush: There are really no mechanisms in place, and that’s worrisome. Japan and China did come to an agreement in principle in June 2008 on shared exploitation of some, but not all of the East China Sea fields. But the two governments have not followed up to conclude implementing accords that would allow the cooperation to begin. The fault here is on the Chinese side. When the June 2008 agreement in principle was announced, nationalistic public opinion in China was quite negative, and the regime was accused of selling out Chinese interests. (Actually, the agreement was pretty favorable from an objective Chinese perspective.) So China is now taking the stance that until Japan creates proper political conditions, negotiations on any implementing agreements are not appropriate. Regarding the Senkaku/Diaoyu, there are no mechanisms for resolving or managing the dispute. Meanwhile, naval and air forces of the two countries patrol the area, each side watching the other suspiciously.

WPR: How significant are the East China Sea disputes in the context of broader Japan-China relations?

Bush: The East China Sea is one of several issues that will define the future of China-Japan relations. On the one hand, there are reasons for the two countries to cooperate. Neither, particularly Japan, can provide for its own energy needs. Each places a high priority on ensuring energy security. On the other hand, each suspects the intentions and motivations of the other. Governments on each side must take account of nationalistic public opinion and the concerns of energy companies. (The expanding Chinese navy also shapes Beijing’s approach). If the two countries can “get to yes” on East China Sea issues, it will increase mutual trust and confidence and mitigate some of the ill-will that has accumulated. If on the other hand, the two sides “default to no,” or, God forbid, there is an accidental clash of air or naval units, then the lessons that each learns about each other will be quite negative.

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