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Possible oil, gas reserves in high-stakes contest

By Julian Ryall HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Marianas Business Journal, Sept. 27, 2010) – Zhan has since been at the center of an escalating geopolitical row that has put discussions over gas and oil deposits between Beijing and Tokyo on hold and is ratcheting up tensions across the region.

Zhan and his crew were arrested by Japan Coast Guard after his boat collided with coast guard vessels while trying to evade Japanese authorities close to the Senkaku Islands. The tiny uninhabited islets are under Japanese control but are claimed by both China and Taiwan.

The islands - which are believed to lie near vast potential oil and gas reserves - have been the source of friction since the 1970s. There had been attempts to resolve a disagreement over gas and oil deposits in another sector of the East China Sea, but China’s decision to cancel talks this month indicates Beijing is in no mood to back down.

And that bodes ill for negotiations at the United Nations’ Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, where Japan is applying to extend the limits of its continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in seven regions to the south and east of its main islands.

"As an oceanic nation, there is potential to develop mineral deposits in these areas in the future," said Tetsuya Yoshimoto, deputy director of the International Legal Affairs Bureau of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "At the moment, the Japanese government does not have anything specific in mind in terms of exploiting resources in these regions, but there is always the potential to do so."

Japan submitted its application to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf on Nov. 12, 2008.

"The application is presently under consideration and how long that process takes depends on the scale of the application and whether there is any opposition," Yoshimoto said.

In accordance with Article 76 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, Japan is seeking to demonstrate that the calculation of the foot of the continental slope from a series of Japanese islands gives it the right to claim the areas of the Pacific in question.

The seven sectors cover an area of ocean far larger than the landmass of Japan and will bring it into even closer proximity to the United States and Palau.

In a notice dated Dec. 8, 2008, the Permanent Mission of the U.S. to the UN had "taken note of the potential overlap between two areas of continental shelf" between the two nations, but added, "The United States confirms that it does not object to Japan’s request that the Commission consider the documentation."

On June 15, 2009, Palau’s representative in New York stated that the Pacific nation had also taken note of the potential overlap caused by Japan’s claim. Palau did not object.

But not all the comments were so supportive. On Feb. 6, 2009, China cited Article 121 of the convention that states, "rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf." Hence, the Chinese said, Okinotorishima cannot be used by Japan to advance its claims.

Japan, however, is doing all that it can to make the outcropping of the rocks more substantial. Already surrounded by a man-made wall, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which administers the island from 1,740 km to the north, announced in January the allocation of US$7 million to improve infrastructure on Okinotorishima, including the construction of port facilities. A sea wall, a lighthouse and navigational facilities for ships have already been installed while marine biologists are attempting to cultivate coral to increase the size of the island.

The Chinese, however, are not impressed.

Shortly after Tokyo announced its plans, China’s Foreign Ministry denounced the proposals as a breach of international maritime law.

"The construction of infrastructure will not change Okinotori Reef’s legal position," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters in Beijing on Jan. 7.

But military experts detect another motive for China ratcheting up the pressure on the issue - which had rarely been raised prior to 2004 - and point to similar moves by China off its southern coast.

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