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Date Posted: 20:29 11/01/2005

Japan and China squabble over natural gas

Experts call upon Japan to draw a line under 'historical problems' to strengthen its diplomatic hand

IT SEEMS that the Chinese press has finally been allowed to comment on an editorial that appeared at the beginning of the year in the right-wing Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, calling upon the Japanese government to take a 'firm stance' against China and review its diplomatic positioning, 'which is marked by an excessive desire for appeasement'.

Yomiuri Shimbun was commenting on the news that the Japanese government had discovered that three of the natural gas fields currently being developed by China in the East China Sea were situated entirely in what Japan believes to be its 'exclusive economic zone' (EEZ). Another nine also transgress the dividing line recognized by Japan.

Energy is becoming one of the main bones of contention between the two countries. China needs power to sustain economic growth, and Japan – which is also massively dependent on imports - is naturally apprehensive about giving China free access to the resources of northeastern Asia. That is why it gazumped China on an oil pipeline from Siberia, which instead of going to Daqing in northern China, will now run to Russia's far eastern Pacific coast. It is also why the Japanese government is being urged to defend its interests in the East China Sea more vigorously.

The Chinese response naturally links the problem of disputed gas resources to Prime Minister Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and the decision of the Japanese government to allow Taiwan independence advocate Lee Teng-hui to visit the country. That is to say, it brings the 'historical problems' to bear on what ought to be a quite separate issue relating to national boundaries and the division of natural resources.

The Xinhua report urges China to be on the alert against the 'delusions of Japanese right-wingers'. 'Just as the East China Sea problem gradually moves towards normalization in the Sino-Japanese relationship, some Japanese right-wingers with ulterior motives come along and harp on about it', and as was the case when Lee Teng-hui was allowed to visit, 'the Japanese government, under pressure from those domestic right-wingers, makes decisions that go against the relationship between China and Japan'.

It seems that certain elements in the Japanese media are beginning to recognize that the best way for Japan to maximize its interests is by a decisive political concession, clearing the way for more constructive dialogue between the two countries. The English-language Japan Times this week published an editorial suggesting that Koizumi's 'obsession' with the Yasukuni Shrine is damaging Japan's interests and giving China a very strong diplomatic card.
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