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“Rising tensions” in Northeast Asia: Political game or a cause for worry?

Updated On: Apr 21, 2006

In the last few days, temperatures and tempo were raised in the seas around Northeast Asia.

The first “tension” involved a notice banning all unauthorized ship traffic around the Pinghu field from 1 March to 30 September 2006 posted by the Chinese maritime authorities. Fortunately, Japan reacted calmly and seek clarification from the Chinese authorities concerning the ban.  China very quickly ended the latest dispute between Japan and China as Beijing informed Tokyo it would revise its ban on maritime traffic in contested gas-rich waters in the East China Sea. The Chinese foreign ministry informed the Japanese government that there had been a "technical mistake" in the delineation of the no-sail zone. According to the Chinese foreign ministry's explanation, the country's maritime authorities mistakenly defined the range as "from 27.7 to 29.4 north latitude," although it should have been "from 29.7 to 29.4 north latitude." The Chinese Maritime Safety Administration then released a statement that it intends to only keep the no-sail zone within its own territorial waters.

Just as the tensions with China cooled down, Japan dispatched a Coast Guard vessel to conduct surveys around islets at the centre of a territorial dispute betweenSouth Korea and Japan, known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japanese. President Roh Moo-hyun was fierce in his retort: "Japan has been staging offensive provocation" against South Korea's sovereignty over the islets”. South Korea placed its Coast Guard on high alert, sending 18 vessels to the area and warning Japan to stay away. Yonhap news agency has reported that South Korea may even try to capture Japanese vessels entering the disputed waters. More important than the islets themselves are the waters surrounding the islets which parties to the disputes claim as their exclusive economic zone. Under international maritime law, an exclusive economic zone extends 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from the shore of a country's territory, and gives the country special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources in the area. Both Dokdo (Takeshima) and Pinghu/Chunxiao islets have rich fishing grounds and rich natural gas deposits.

Despite the tensions detailed in the international media, these islets and water territorial disputes very quickly subsided. Japan and China have brought their islet disputes to the negotiating table. The dispute is now centered on how to cooperate to jointly develop the gas fields with differences over the mode, scope and extent of cooperation. In the most recent session of high-level talks last month, Japan proposed the joint development of the region on both sides of the centre-line, but the Chinese side proposed the joint development of the seabed in the vicinity of the disputed Diaoyu - or Senkaku - islands. Both are waiting for the May 2009 UN decisions on the median line and its implications for their dispute. Some may speculate that the Chinese decision to raise the ban in the first was to probe and gauge Japanese response to it, a strategy it has regularly used in its territorial issues with Japan and a tactic that the Japanese side has gotten familiar with. Both sides are unlikely to let this issue affect Japan’s investments which hit a record high in 2005.

Similarly, for the Japan-South Korea disputes, the South Korean foreign ministry has reiterated that it seeks a diplomatic solution to the crisis while Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan told the media that Japan would resort to “underwater” talks to resolve the issue.

While China-Japan and Korea-Japan have mechanisms in place to resolve their differences, third parties that are involved may not be viewed in the same benevolent light. China’s official media has yet to provide analysis of its view of the role of Australia in hosting the recent trilateral. And, once again, Australia has made the controversial decision to partner with Japan in growing corals in the disputed area. It is likely that Beijing would view these two recent actions by Australia with underlying suspicions, but would keep its cool as China needs to take a long term view of Australia’s rising position as an agricultural and raw materials supplier (especially uranium). At the same time, China looks poised to supply Australia with higher value-added products.

Sources:

South Korea and Japan in face-off over disputed islets (Straits Times, 20 April 2006)

Report: Japan sends ship to disputed islets (People’s Daily, 19 April 2006)

Economic cost in China's strained ties with Japan (The Daily Yomiuri, 19 April 2006)

China corrects shipping ban in East China Sea (The Daily Yomiuri, 19 April 2006)

New work on gas field risks deepening rift with Japan (Reuters, 19 April 2006)

Japan-China dispute in East China Sea ends as Beijing revises ban (Channelnewsasia, 18 April 2006)

China tells Japan sea traffic ban zone revised (Straits Times, 18 April 2006)

China shipping ban may breach U.N. treaty: Abe (Japan Times, 18 April 2006)

Japan hopes to grow coral around disputed Pacific outcrop (Japan Times, 18 April 2006)

Japan wants answers from China over energy dispute (Straits Times, 17 April 2006)