China Tables New Plan in Gas Talks with Japan, Signs of Rift

Japan and China on Tuesday ended two days of talks aimed at solving a row over gas exploration rights in the East China Sea with a new Chinese resolution plan and a Japanese promise to look into it, but little sign that the two sides were able to narrow their differences.

China's presentation of the new proposal during the fourth senior working-level talks on the row followed Japan's presentation of its own ideas to jointly develop gas fields in the area, put forward in the last round of discussions in the fall.

"We agreed that both sides will take back the proposals to our respective governments and consider them," Kenichiro Sasae, Japan's representative to the negotiations, told reporters after the talks.

Sasae, however, declined to discuss the content of the Chinese proposal, saying the two countries have agreed not to disclose it.

Asked whether he found it acceptable, Sasae said, "We would like to take it back with us, and study it carefully."

"There are many points that should be considered," he added.

In Tokyo, Japanese government sources said late Tuesday the new Chinese proposal is "unacceptable," indicating Tokyo would have no choice but to turn it down.

Signs indicated that significant differences remained between the two sides.

A Japanese government official involved in the talks said negotiators "had heated exchanges on basic principles" in the two-day talks.

Sasae, head of the Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, also hinted at frustration felt by the Japanese negotiators, saying that although he felt there was "an overall willingness" on the part of Chinese officials to make progress, he thought that "whether that was reflected in reality was another matter."

While the two countries have agreed in principle to jointly develop gas fields, they have so far remained apart over the area where the joint projects should take place.

The root of the dispute is an unsettled demarcation in the sea where the two countries' 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones overlap.

Japan has proposed that the two countries jointly develop all gas fields near the Japan-proposed line of separation of the two countries' economic waters under the "median line" demarcation principle.

That is because Tokyo is concerned about several Chinese gas development projects on the Chinese side of the median line, which it believes could siphon off resources buried under Japan-claimed waters because of their proximity to the line.

But China has said development of any gas fields that lie on the Chinese side of the median line falls within the realm of Beijing's sovereign rights.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said Beijing's position has not changed.

"The relevant development activities of the Chinese side are conducted in an area where there are no disputes by the two sides," Li said at a press conference held shortly after the bilateral negotiations.

"It is an objective fact that China and Japan have different opinions with regards to the East China Sea," Li said.

Based on the "continental shelf" demarcation principle, Beijing has also insisted it has rights to marine resources east of the median line, to the edge of the continental shelf near Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa.

A particular point of contention between the two countries remains the Chunxiao gas field, which lies a few kilometers of the median line on the Chinese side. Exploration in the area has reached a point where its developer says production could begin soon.

The Japanese government official involved in the talks said that in the Beijing negotiations, China once again refused to hand over information on the gas field, which Japan calls "Shirakaba," as requested by Tokyo.

The official, however, said some views were shared between the two governments in their two-day meeting.

The two countries' negotiators agreed that any joint development plan will be a temporary one that should be separated from a permanent demarcation of their exclusive economic zones, the official said.

They also agreed that any arrangement should be mutually beneficial, the official said.

The two sides also agreed to hold the next round of talks as soon as possible, according to the two governments.

Also representing Japan in the talks was Nobuyori Kodaira, director general of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency.

Hu Zhengyue, chief of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Asian Affairs Department, headed the Chinese delegation.

2006 Kyodo News (C) Established 1945.