Maritime territorial disputes in the East China Sea (ECS) have often hindered the progress of bilateral communication between China and Japan in strategic realms. Primarily, the stalemate has resulted from an adherence to the ‘median-line’ approach/equidistance principle by Japan and to the continental shelf approach by China. However, recent negotiations between the two exhibit a growing urgency for cooperation and promotion of mutual trust through temporary provisions instead of waiting for permanent solutions on the ECS issue. In the backdrop of the first round of negotiations between China and Japan conducted on 28 July 2010, it is important to reflect how far the two countries stand to gain from a cooperative approach, what issues are likely to remain problematic in the future and what further initiatives can be taken besides economic engagement.
The principles of consensus (POC) on the ECS issue agreed in June 2008 initiated a framework for strategic bilateral negotiations. China and Japan decided to make concerted efforts to gradually accelerate the process of implementing POC and attain the common goal of turning the ECS into a sea of “peace, cooperation and friendship” (an idea envisaged initially in 2006). Pursuant to this, in a meeting at the sidelines of ASEAN Ministerial meeting in Hanoi in July 2010, the representatives of the two governments outlined the provisions for implementing this consensus.
The two parties have agreed to reestablish the Sino-Japanese Prime Ministers hotline, begin official negotiations to exchange inter-governmental notes on implementing the POC on the ECS issue, establish a sea-borne contact mechanism as well as search and rescue agreement and a cooperation mechanism on food safety. They have further pledged to cooperate in the transitional period prior to delimitation without prejudice to their legal positions and to engage in mutual joint development of the northern part of ECS.
The reason for such promptness is that both China and Japan recognize that they stand to gain massive benefits from an engagement in the area. The Sea provides rich hydrocarbon resources and seabed metal deposits which can meet China’s increasing energy demands, help in reducing its high dependence on energy from the Middle East and develop more environmentally-sustainable resources. The ECS can also help China in gaining free access to the Pacific Ocean in the face of strengthening US-Japan military cooperation. Delays in this regard would thus be a severe loss of precious time and opportunity for China.
Japan’s willingness to engage, on the other hand, is driven by a fear of siphoning of undersea oil and natural gas resources from its side by China. It already makes ineffective claims to the Tianwaitian oil and natural gas fields which began functioning under Chinese sponsorship some time back. And though it recognizes China’s control over the Canxue, Duanqiao and Chunxiao fields, it is still concerned about China’s actions in these fields as they can be used as possible bases for drawing off Japanese resources. The current provisions in the agreement however, make way for the Japanese enterprises to participate in cooperative development of China’s oil and gas fields, and thereby, increase Japan’s stake in Chinese maritime possessions, which would otherwise have benefitted the Chinese alone.
The present rapprochement is thus seen as an effort by the two to allay misconceptions and find a middle ground to work in these 70,000 square nautical miles of disputed maritime space. However, the caveat still remains whether an economically-driven alliance will override larger political implications and pave the way for cooperation among the two neighbours. As history testifies, the Prior Notification Agreement of 2001 became redundant in face of political exigencies and previous agreements regarding fisheries and oil and natural gas exploration have been repeatedly violated in the pursuit of national interests. Media allegations and intrusive campaigns in each other’s maritime territories in the past have often brought bilateral agreements to a standstill. The alleged presence of helicopters on Chinese naval vessels too close to the Japanese vessels in early 2010 has further complicated the state of affairs.
The involvement of Taiwan and South Korea in the ECS issue has also been a matter of concern. Both China and Japan have tried to strike counter-effective deals with South Korea in the past and could do so again if the agreement fails to address their national concerns. Taiwan for its part, has been trying to claim several portions of the Sea, which if recognized by Japan questions the territorial integrity of China and thereby increases tension in Sino-Japanese bilateral relations.
A permanent solution to the issue requires a significant change from the status quo premised on unclear directions listed under the UNCLOS (1996) on Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in overlapping regions. A more fruitful endeavour would involve strengthening people-to-people contacts between the two countries that would help reduce the historical baggage they carry. An economic approach alone cannot provide answers to sovereignty issues and hence, efforts need to be substantiated by additional cultural and legal mechanisms.