Sea of peace

Published : Jul 18, 2008 00:00 IST

The transitional arrangement China and Japan are working for can lead to a final settlement of their dispute in the East China Sea.

in Singapore

POLITICAL will is the key to helping solve or manage or even simply shelve emotive problems involving two or more major powers. This old adage has lately come into sharp focus in the Asia-Pacific region in the context of a principled consensus between China and Japan to cooperate and gain benefits while managing their dispute over gas-and-oil blocks in the East China Sea.

The June 18 statement on this consensus is a dramatic sequel to the far-reaching joint statement issued in Tokyo on May 7 after the summit there between Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda. On that occasion, Hu emphasised that the China-Japan relationship, deeply damaged in the context of events before and after the Second World War, had reached a new starting point in a historical sense and setting. The consensus is very significant indeed in geopolitical terms though it has not yet been formally designated a bilateral agreement; such an agreement has been promised as a follow-up legal document.

In a sense, this reflects the first practical step by China and Japan, in tandem, towards the realisation of the Hu-Fukuda political pledge to work together to make the East China Sea a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the latest consensus has drawn a cynical comment in some Western quarters that China and Japan have now made a new geographical discovery about a sea of peace, as it were. There is, of course, more to such Western perceptions than meets the eye. And, this will be clearer against the backdrop of the finer points of such an unusual consensus.

The baseline is to have a transitional arrangement pending the delimitation of the maritime boundary between China and Japan along the East China Sea in a final settlement. The chosen form of this transitional mechanism is joint development of some identified gas-and-oil blocks in specified fields. This will, of course, involve joint exploration as a prerequisite and exploitation of the resources later on. Any such transitional arrangement will be put in place without prejudicing the respective legal positions of the two countries with regard to their search for a mutually acceptable maritime boundary in this sensitive sector.

The central aspect of this non-prejudicial approach is that China does not accept Japans proposition, which virtually borders on a policy formulation, that a so-called median line divides the relevant waters between the two countries. Significantly, in the specific context of the new consensus, Beijing reaffirmed its repeated rejections of the theory of a median line as the basis for a final settlement of the maritime boundary issue.

The centrepiece of the consensus is the clear identification of a block, complete with latitude and longitude, in the Chunxiao oil-and-gas field (known in Japan as Shirakaba) for joint development of selected sites as a sequel to joint exploration. The principles of consultation and mutual benefit will determine progress at every step. And there will be no departure from the domestic procedures of either country in moving towards a formal and legally binding accord on joint development in this particular block.

Equally importantly, consultations will be carried forward for the early realisation of joint development in other parts of East China Sea as well. It is widely believed that the Longjing field may well be taken up for joint development in the light of the progress in respect of Chunxiao. Longjing is known to straddle the median line more than Chunxiao. The principled consensus of this path-breaking magnitude has been achieved through serious consultations on an equal footing and in the spirit of shelving differences and seeking common ground. It is not any hidden political or strategic agenda of either China or Japan that is behind the evident sense of urgency.

China makes no secret of its national priority of wanting to rise peacefully as a great power in every sense of the term and to do so without any internal or external disruptions. Japan, too, wants to re-emerge as a major power but this time without its old and odious imperial baggage. So, they decided upon this win-win or enlightened agenda.

As for the mechanics of joint development in the Chunxiao field, Chinese enterprises welcome the participation of Japanese legal person. The relevant Chinese laws will apply insofar as the role of foreign firms in the exploration and exploitation of offshore petroleum resources is concerned. As a result, a Japan-China joint venture is likely to be formed, with state enterprises expected to participate from the Chinese side. The profits will be shared by the two sides in proportion to their respective investment in the project.

This aspect, too, has led to derisive comments in the West that Japan, a long-standing and close military ally of the United States, has now opted for profits over patriotism centred on sovereignty rights in the East China Sea area. The Japanese response, insofar as it can be discerned, is that the primary issue is not whether the latest consensus with China should be seen as an accord on the joint development of a gas-and-oil field in a disputed zone. The real gain for Tokyo is said to be its new-found stake in the resources of the disputed region in terms of access to them rather than profits from them. Tokyo emphasises this interpretation of the consensus because Beijing has once again asserted that the Chunxiao field falls completely within Chinas sovereignty rights. In Japans view, however, this field sits right across the median line and therefore has an indeterminate status at this stage.

Japan does not also want to be accused, yet again, of resorting to cheque book diplomacy in gaining such a stake in the hitherto elusive resources in the disputed zone. And China is supportive of this line, albeit from the grand Chinese perspective as a global player.

China says the consensus is conducive to peace and stability in East China Sea, [and] to the enhancement of mutually beneficial cooperation on energy and other areas. The healthy and stable development of China-Japan ties will also be facilitated by the accent, in the consensus, on the fundamental interests of both countries and their peoples, Beijing has further noted.

The relevant Beijing-Tokyo dispute centres on the difficulties in determining the borderline between the exclusive economic zones of the two countries as permissible under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The narrowness of the East China Sea is the key factor.

And, while Japan thinks that it is a creative idea to draw up an imaginary median line, China is seen to regard the edge of the continental shelf as the more natural borderline. This would place Chinas maritime boundary somewhere near the Okinawa Trough, which is something Japan is not willing to accept.

The two countries have already gone through a phase of political hostility and of low-scale military tension over Japans complaints against Chinas drilling and other activities in the Chunxiao sector. It is against this background that the U.S.-led West is puzzled at the apparent ease with which Japan is moving towards a rapprochement with China. Images of a groundswell of popular Chinese anger over Japan are still fresh in the Western world.

The inevitable questions of acute interest to the West are whether Japan is revising its world view dramatically and whether China, too, is willing to accept a changing Japan.

For the present, it is fashionable to perceive, or perhaps assume, that China will need to keep its neighbourhood in good humour through a charm offensive in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in August and for some time thereafter. There are deeper factors at work, though.

For Japan, its enduring alliance with the U.S., quite unpopular among the Japanese people at any given time, has not helped alter the reality of a rising China. In a sense, the U.S., now badly distracted by its bungling in Iraq and elsewhere, is unable and unwilling to checkmate China in its ascendance as a multi-role power at space-age velocity, as it were. At the other end of the spectrum, a rapidly rising Beijing, too, is wary of stirring up a hornets nest in the present unsettled situation on the global stage.

Many Western experts have noticed signs of how China is, for the present at least, rising within the overall framework of the current world order, which the U.S. and the West brought into being after the Second World War. This tendency on the part of China can be traced to its gaining the status of a veto-empowered permanent member of the U.N. Security Council by siding with the U.S. in the early 1970s against the old Soviet Union. In this Western perspective, the resultant strategic shift in the status of Beijing has served as its springboard, albeit over time, for the ongoing Chinese project of rising as a full-fledged global power in all spheres.

The strategic options before Japan, in its quest to re-emerge as a super-league player across the global spectrum, are not as numerous as in the case of a huge country like China. Official Tokyo may not have become disillusioned with American globalism, a catchphrase by Kent Calder in a study of embattled garrisons, that is, U.S. military bases across the world.

However, Beijing may well be in a position to reshape the present globalisation at some stage in the future, a possibility that Japan, as Chinas neighbour, cannot afford to ignore. Such long-term considerations are no less relevant to major powers such as China and Japan as they choose to manage their disputes with a view to solving them later.

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