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Oil and gas development under the East China Sea

Use dialogue to draw line with China

Flying over the East China Sea, we spotted the 10,000-ton Norwegian research vessel Ramform Victory running from north to south. The sea was rough, lashed by a strong northwester.

``When the waves are too high, the noise makes it difficult to collect data,'' said Keita Kanda, an engineer with the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. (JOGMEC), whom we had asked to join us aboard The Asahi Shimbun plane Asuka. Kanda had just spent a month heading up a crew of eight Japanese on a ship chartered by the Japanese government.

The Ramform Victory is gathering data on oil and gas reserves in a band of sea about 30 kilometers wide on the eastern side of the Japan-China median line that marks the limit of the exclusive economic zone claimed by Japan. JOGMEC was commissioned by the Japanese government to conduct the survey.

From the surface of the water, researchers collect data on the composition of the underground strata by bouncing sound waves off the seabed. To do so, the researchers use 10 cables, each 4,800 meters long with built-in receivers.

On the day we visited, however, the research had to be suspended because one of the cables had come loose and the ship was on its way to retrieve it. Typhoons have caused frequent delays in the survey, which started in July.

``But when typhoons hit, the Chinese can't work either,'' Kanda said. ``We both have no choice but to escape.''

A Chinese vessel with the name Hai Jian painted on its side frequently approached the Victory.

``This is a China Marine Surveillance ship,'' someone aboard the vessel announced over the radio. This was followed by questions in English.

``What is the name of your ship?''

``What are you doing?''

Then came a warning: ``These are Chinese economic waters. Please stop working at once.''

A Japanese crew member aboard the Victory answered in English: ``We are in Japanese economic waters; therefore, we will continue to work here. We are signing off.''

From time to time, the Chinese vessel ventures within a hairsbreadth of the area laced with cables. When that happens, the Japanese side issues an immediate warning to back off. However, the Chinese ship sometimes shadows the Japanese-chartered ship for as long as a week. The demarcation line between Japan and China in the East China Sea has yet to be determined. China refuses to acknowledge Japan's contention that the median line should be the border, claiming instead that the Chinese continental shelf naturally extends to the Okinawa trough.

We flew further west and saw an orange flame flickering above the waters. It was the Ping Hu oil and gas field. I was told it is some 70 kilometers west of the median line. As we drew closer I could see the workers going about their business. The oil field, which went into production in 1998, pipes both oil and gas to Shanghai.

Heading south we passed over the Tian Wai Tian oil and gas field. Later, we saw the Chun Xiao oil and gas field, China's southernmost offshore oil and gas field in the East China Sea.

Only 4 kilometers from the median line, we saw a brand-new yellow rig rising from the ocean. Until recently, China had been excavating and developing the area with two major European and American oil companies. But the partners withdrew, leaving China alone to work the field.

The drilling and development of Chun Xiao has given rise to a new problem between Japan and China. Since the reserves straddle the median line, drilling from the Chinese side could tap into oil and gas reserves that are buried under the seabed on the Japanese side.

To illustrate the point, when Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Shoichi Nakagawa met with Zhang Guo Bao, deputy director of the Chinese State Development Planning Commission in charge of industry and energy, this summer, he laid a ballpoint pen across the top of a glass of orange juice on the table and said: ``If you suck the juice from your side, the level of our juice also goes down.''

If no agreement is reached, it could develop into a serious dispute.

Because there is no other option but to seek a political settlement, Japan should break its habit of shelving pending problems. Japan has already turned down a Chinese proposal to jointly develop the area.

First of all, I think, the two sides should agree to respect the median line. Then they should study the possibility of jointly developing the reserves that lie under it. However, before starting joint development, the Japanese government must excavate and test-drill the area from the eastern side of the median line to get an accurate grasp of the value of its reserves. Unless it is prepared to claim what is rightfully its own, Japan cannot make a proper plan for joint development, including how to divide up the reserves. Without such a plan, it cannot negotiate with China.

``At first the Chinese vessels used strong language to tell us to stop,'' Kanda said. ``But gradually, they began to add `please.' Now they say `please stop' and repeat the phrase two or three times.

``We also tell them `please stop.'''

The best way for Japan and China to resolve their differences is through dialogue. Please do so. (2004/10/13)

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