[RSTV] India’s World – Japan China maritime dispute in focus again


A White Paper has been brought out by the Defense Ministry of Japan which deals with threats posed towards Japan, especially in the Asia-Pacific Region. The paper displays concerns related to offshore gas platforms that China have been constructing in the East China Sea since 2013. The White Paper is going to be put up in the DIET (Bicameral Legislature of Japan) for discussion.


Although joint drilling in the East China Sea was negotiated by both parties in 2008, there still are disputes between the countries regarding maritime boundaries and respective exclusive economic zones.

Japan wants to postpone the project till the mutually agreed demarcation is finalised. It has also called on China to stop construction of oil and gas platforms in undemarcated waters in the East China Sea. Some reservoirs exist that extend partially into demarcated waters on the Japanese side and partially into undemarcated international waters. The Japanese apprehension is that these reservoirs could be tapped by China, leading to loss of gas reserves on the Japanese side.

History of maritime conflicts between Japan and China

Historically, the problem can be traced back to times of the Ming dynasty on whose basis the Chinese stake their claim for the disputed Diaoyu (Senkaku in Japanese) islands. In 1895, Japan defeated China and occupied Formosa (present day Taiwan) and many other territories on the Chinese mainland. But they had to let go of these acquisitions under Russian pressure. Hence, these territorial problems with their maritime dimensions have existed over the past 100 years.

The recent waves of problems date back to 1970 with discovery of supposedly huge oil & mineral reserves in the East China Sea. The Japanese moved in for exploitation of these resources backed by the United States. The Chinese were silent on the topic until they managed to normalise relations with the US. Realising that the US wasn’t that interested and won’t create much of a problem, China starts asserting its historical claims and the matter came to a head in the 1990s.

China’s assertiveness in the wake of its growing power globally has given it the heft to take Japan head on. Hence, the discovery of oil and gas resources is the immediate reason that has triggered off this latest phase of conflict.

The Japanese PM had visited China in November 2014. But, during that visit came the news of the Chinese Navy illegally taking Red Corals from Ogashwara Islands which form a part of the Tokyo Metropolitan. This activity of China didn’t go down well with Japan.

Japanese concern apart from the oil & gas, and why such an emphasis on the East China Sea in the White Paper?

Japan has emphasized on the East China Sea specifically for three reasons:

  • To assess the stand of the International Community on the overall Japan-China issue.
  • To assess its own political and public opinion.
  • With an eye towards amending the old Japanese policy of renunciation of overseas wars (the assertion of Japanese rights to the Senkaku islands helps in getting this crucial piece of legislation to make Japan a more normal country).

Also, 15th August, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and Japan has wanted to say things for atrocities committed against it towards the ending of the War.

What made China move unilaterally in exploration even after the 2008 Agreement?

In 2008, a broad agreement was reached between the two countries, which can be refined in terms of nitty gritty to:

  • Profit sharing
  • Greater rights

But the deal got bogged down by many technicalities. At that point of time, the Chinese recognised a situation that would strengthen their claims. Accordingly, they established the East China Sea ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) – an area of air traffic restrictions in the East China Sea to extend their claims to Diaoyu and other Exclusive Economic Zones.

The Chinese have adopted a method of responding and reacting which will create a status-quo first and then help them move unilaterally. This unilateralism of China has created many a problems.

Do Chinese platforms really fall outside the geographical scope of the 2008 Agreement and affect Japanese reservoirs?

In April 2014, after Japan moved its self defense forces and radars to the Unagumi Islands, China created a lot of hue and cry on the issue. Now, even though China is within its geographical scope, Japan is creating an issue as a reciprocation. This move of Japan is determined more by domestic reasons than any technical or international ones.

The problem cannot be solved till the time the ownership issue is wrapped up by both sides.

There is apprehension that China might use these platforms for military purposes, How far is it justified?

Many platforms in the South China Sea constructed by the Chinese have a clear military objective. They are provided with helipads and docks for ships. Hence, this apprehension of the Japanese is not completely notional.

What does Japan stand to gain with attracting so much attention of the international community ?

The gains Japan is eyeing are three fold:

  • Domestic – It will help in creating public opinion in favour of the present govt.
  • International – Japan fears that withdrawal of American forces from Asia will make Japan take larger calls with respect to Asia on its own without US support from now onwards. For this, it will need to have the international community behind it.
  • Economic – Japan will get secure sea lines with respect to oil and commodity movement.

Sometimes things go wrong at lower levels which go unnoticed in the international arena. Japan wants to keep all such activities from the Chinese side in the news.

Is Japan encouraging a confrontational attitude elsewhere?

There is concern among the small neighbors of China in South China Sea about China’s assertiveness and activities. Naturally, Japan is now seeking to get these small countries on board with it against China, as this will make its case more convincing.
Although Japan’s particular stand in history and its roles in World Wars have created an apprehension for the small countries to get on board, the image has reversed and the smaller countries are willing to ally with Japan because of:

  • Chinese growing power and assertiveness.
  • Strong exercise of Japanese soft power through technology development and Official Development Assistance (ODA) to small Asian countries.

China’s Stand on the White Paper

China has called Japan two-faced. It accuses Japan on one hand of talking about dialogue and negotiations for settling the issue, while on the other hand instigating and constantly messing around in matters they should be agreeing about.

How it concerns India? Can India be a neutral observer?

This is an issue for any country using the East China Sea for shipping and hence, India has a role to play into it.

Officially, India has taken the neutral path, with the view that it is an internal problem between China and Japan, and that India is not going to meddle in it.

But we have expressed our dissatisfactions, concerns, worries etc about China and are actively trying to assert our pressure on that country. The Indian PM’s visit to Japan saw him referring to expansionism, implicating China. Further, we have raised the point that China has protested India’s activities in Vietnamese exclusive economic zones, despite China being no way involved in a matter between India and Vietnam. We have also given a clear indication of our stand by inviting Japan to the Malabar Naval Exercise after a gap of several years.

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