Tensions in the current spat between China and Japan keep rising. On Sunday, China’s senior diplomat, Dai Bingguo, escalated his country’s dispute with Japan over the arrest of Zhan Qixiong, the captain of a fishing boat that collided with two Japanese Coast Guard ships on Tuesday.
The Japanese authorities have charged the boat’s captain with deliberately ramming the two Japanese ships after refusing either to leave the area or allow them to inspect his vessel. After a Japanese court on Friday authorized a ten-day extension of Zhan’s detention, Dai summed the Japanese ambassador to China, Uichiro Niwa, and urged the Japanese government to avoid ‘misjudgements’ and find a ‘wise political resolution’ to the crisis by releasing Zhan.
The collision, which didn’t result in any casualties, wouldn’t have attracted so much attention if it hadn’t occurred near disputed islands (referred to as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China) in the East China Sea. China. Japan and Taiwan all claim sovereignty over the uninhabited islands, which are located west of Japan's Okinawa island, east of China's south-eastern Fujian coast and northeast of Taiwan.
Yet the ongoing dispute is less about the actual islands than the East China Sea itself. In addition to rich fishing areas, the ocean seabed is thought to hold large deposits of oil and natural gas (estimated at over 100 billion barrels of oil and 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas), which make it a tempting prize for both energy-poor Japan and energy-hungry China.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which entered into force in 1994, a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends 200 nautical miles from its shoreline. In addition, a country’s EEZ can extend to the outer limit of the continental shelf that the country sits on if that outer edge is less than or equal to 350 nautical miles from the country’s shoreline. Unfortunately, the treaty’s language is unclear when discussing which countries have access to certain islands, such as those in the East China Sea.
The sovereignty dispute over the East China Sea concerns a body of water that separates eastern China from the southern islands of Japan. At its broadest point, the East China Sea is only 360 nautical miles wide; at its narrowest point, it is only 180 miles wide. The potential problems with such a scenario are clear.
However, despite the obvious overlap between the EEZ of China and of Japan, the Chinese government claims an extremely large area of the East China Sea through its Law of Natural Prolongation. China asserts that its EEZ extends all the way to the Okinawa Trough, which is located just off the Japanese coast, with Chinese representatives arguing that the Trough doesn’t follow the Japanese coastline very closely. In the eyes of the Chinese, this proves that China and Japan are not located on the same continental shelf, and that China’s Law of Natural Prolongation therefore applies. In addition, Chinese representatives cite the use of the islands by Chinese fishermen since the fifteenth century to bolster their ownership claims.