Tokyo Notes

Japan’s Missed Opportunity?

Tokyo reportedly turns down Beijing’s offer to jointly develop oil and gas deposits off disputed islets.

Japan seems to have blown an opportunity to put the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute to bed, or at least let it lie for a while.

Reports suggest that Beijing made a proposal to Tokyo earlier this month to jointly develop potentially lucrative oil and gas deposits under waters around the contested islands; China has made similar advances in the past.

Tokyo’s reasoning for declining the offer is that no dispute exists, dogmatically insisting the islands are an ‘integral’ part of the nation and therefore only it has the right to exploit these resources. Predictably, Beijing also says they are an ‘integral’ part of China.

The islets themselves are only integral to the goats that live on them—it’s the vast underwater deposits of resources thought to be under nearby waters that has prompted the latest bout of flag-waving.

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Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said Thursday that he suspects China has started drilling near the islands. Rumours doing the rounds in Tokyo suggest that a Chinese drilling platform close to the edge of China’s exclusive economic zone is capable of (or is, depending on who you speak with) siphoning gas from Japanese waters.

But Japan’s refusal to work with its neighbour seems contradictory. A June 2008 consensus agreement between the two nations, while not addressing sovereignty, established a framework for oil companies to jointly explore the waters for potential production. Neither side was gushing out nationalistic claims at the time. So it’s sad to now see Japan obstinately citing territorial grounds for turning its back on this accord. For once, China and Japan (respectively, the world’s second- and third-biggest oil importers) should put the history books aside and work together for mutual gain.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao are set to meet at next week’s ASEAN summit in Hanoi. Let’s hope they can find a way round this impasse.