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Diplomatic wrangles over Pacific islets cover rights to potentially huge oil and gas reserves.

Friday, 01 October 2010 00:00

BEFORE September 8, few people anywhere had heard of Zhan Qixiong or his battered fishing boat. However, since the Chinese fisherman and his 14-strong crew were taken into custody by the Japan Coast Guard on September 8, Zhan has found himself at the centre of an escalating geopolitical row that has already put planned discussions over gas and oil deposits between Beijing and Tokyo on hold and is ratcheting up broader tensions in the region.

Zhan and his crew, who have since been released, were arrested after allegedly colliding with two coastguard vessels as he tried to evade Japanese authorities in waters close to the Senkaku Islands. Zhan remains in custody in Okinawa and is expected to be charged with illegally fishing in Japanese territorial waters. The tiny, uninhabited Senkaku islets are under Japanese control but are claimed by both China, which calls the islands Diaoyutai, and Taiwan to boot.

The islands--which are believed to lie near vast potential oil and gas reserves--have been the source of territorial friction since the 1970s, when the United States ended its post-World War II control of Okinawa, the prefecture to which the isles administratively belong, but Beijing says its claim goes back to before the Sino-Japanese war of 1895.

Both sides are taking a firm stance on the issue. There have been stage-managed protests outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and Ambassador Uichiro Niwa has been summoned to a series of diplomatic dressing-downs, while in Japan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku has repeated that the arrest followed normal procedures and that Japanese law would be applied.

But China's decision to cancel bilateral talks scheduled for later this month to thrash out a resolution to a disagreement over gas and oil deposits in another nearby sector of the East China Sea indicate that Beijing is in no mood to back down.

And that bodes particularly ill for ongoing negotiations at the United Nations' Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, where Japan is applying to establish the outer limits of its continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in seven regions to the south and south-east of the main islands of Japan.

Even before the arrest of Zhan and his crew, Beijing had formally and forcefully expressed its opposition to Japan's application.

"As an oceanic nation, there is the potential to develop mineral deposits in these areas in the future," said Tetsuya Yoshimoto, deputy director of the Ocean Division's International Legal Affairs Bureau of Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "At the moment, the Japanese government does not have anything specific in mind in terms of exploiting resources in these regions, but there is always the potential to do so."

Due to the depths of much of the seabed in the seven regions that Japan is claiming, exploration and extraction of any resources will be costly and technically difficult, so the application is more of a marker to future intent. For the time being, Yoshimoto said, Japanese companies and the government are focusing their efforts on developing energy sources that are on land or in shallower waters.

Japan submitted its application to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf on November 12, 2008, becoming the 13th nation to file for recognition of territorial rights with the commission. Tokyo's claim was initially discussed at the 25th meeting of the panel in March and April of this year, followed by further talks in August.

"The application is presently under consideration and how long that process takes, as we have seen from some previous applications, depends on the scale of the application and whether there is any opposition," said Yoshimoto. And because the Japanese application is complicated and meeting opposition, the process might take several years to complete, he admits.

Vladimir Jares, senior legal officer for the UN Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, declined to comment on the timing or content of any individual nation's application. In accordance with article 76 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, Japan is aiming to demonstrate that the calculation of the foot of the continental slope from a series of Japanese-held islands gives it the right to claim the seven areas of the Pacific in question. The seven sectors detailed in the application cover an area of ocean far larger than the land mass of Japan. One of the most expansive is the application for the seabed that stretches from southern Kyushu all the way south to the independent Pacific island of Palau. This claim is based on Japanese claims to Oki-no-Tori Shima Island. Another islet Minami-Io To Island--part of the Izu-Ogasawara arc of isles--is cited in the application in those waters, and so is Minami Tori Shima Island for the area furthest to the east, part of the northwest Pacific Basin. A smaller area close to the Mogi Seamount is also on the Japanese list, along with the more substantial Ogasawara Plateau region and the Southern Oki-Daito Ridge Region, which is the most westerly of all the areas under consideration. The final sector is known as the Shikoku Basin Region and is presently a 'hole' in Japan's existing territorial waters where the distance between two parallel chains of islands is too far to give Tokyo the right to call it Japanese. The ministry hopes the application will plug that hole.

Japan's application to extend its territory brings it into even closer proximity to United States Pacific territory, although Washington appears relaxed so far. In a notice dated December 8, 2008, the Permanent Mission of the US to the UN stated that it had "taken note of the potential overlap between two areas of continental shelf" between the two nations, but added, "The United States confirms that it does not object to Japan's request that the Commission consider the documentation."

Similarly, on June 15, 2009, the commission received a note from the Republic of Palau's representative in New York stating that it too had taken note of the potential overlap caused by Japan's claim, but added that Palau did not object to Japan's request.

But not all the comments to the commission were so supportive of Japan's claim. On February 6, 2009, China cited Article 121, paragraph 3 of the convention that states "rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf." Hence, the Chinese mission stated, Oki-no-Tori Shima cannot be used by Japan to advance its claims and that the commission should refrain from considering Japan's application in those areas. South Korea echoed that position 15 days later.

Japan, however, is doing all that it can to make the outcropping of these two jagged rocks more substantial. Oki-no-Tori Shima is already surrounded by a man-made wall, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which administers the island from 1,740 km to the north, announced in January that it is allocating USD7 million this year to improve infrastructure, including the construction of port facilities. As well as the protective sea wall, a lighthouse and navigational facilities for ships have already been installed on the site, which is also known as Douglas Reef, while Japanese marine biologists are attempting an ambitious plan to cultivate coral in the surrounding waters to increase the size of the island. The Chinese, however, are not impressed.

Shortly after Tokyo announced its expansion plans, China's Foreign Ministry denounced the proposals as a breach of international maritime law. "The construction of infrastructure will not change Oki-no-Tori Reef's legal position," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters in Beijing on January 7.

Japan has rebutted China's claims, with foreign press secretary Kazuo Kodama telling reporters the following day that, "Since July 1931 and up until to now, we have effectively controlled Oki-no-Tori Island as an island and have set up an exclusive economic zone in the surrounding seas. We believe that such rights and the island's status have already been established." But military experts here detect another motive for China ratcheting up the pressure on the issue--which had rarely been raised prior to 2004--and point to similar moves by China off its southern coast. The day before commenting on the Oki-no-Torishima issue, Beijing declared "indisputable sovereignty" over an archipelago of tiny islands in the South China Sea that it disputes with Vietnam. Beijing occupied some of the islands after a brief naval battle with Vietnamese troops in 1974 and in early January this year announced plans to develop tourism in the region. Ironically, Japanese officials point out, China is happy to use islands that are similar in size to Oki-no-Tori Shima to advance its own territorial claims while simultaneously dismissing Japan's position.

"The reason that China is giving in public for these moves is that it wishes to maximize its access to natural resources and fishing in the area," said Masafumi Iida, a China expert at Japan's National Institute of Defence Studies.

"And that may be one factor--but of far more importance is China's developing naval strategy for the Pacific Ocean," he added. Despite China's protests, Japan is pushing ahead with plans to tap undersea resources. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is planning to file a request for Japanese Yen JPY1.1 billion (US dollar USD13 million) from the national 2011 budget for an unmanned submersible that will be used to search for natural resources. The new vehicle will be designed to operate at depths of 2.5 km and gather data on the undulation of the seabed and the configuration of the crust beneath the surface.
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Author:Ryall, Julian
Publication:International News Services.com
Date:Oct 1, 2010
Words:1600
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