Japan set to raise stakes in China row

Japan is preparing new laws to protect offshore oil and gas rigs in a move that will raise the stakes in a long-running dispute with China over maritime boundaries in the East China Sea.

Two separate bills, enjoying cross-party support, would set out a “basic law” of the sea and provide legal protection for Japanese rigs and vessels in the country’s exclusive economic zone.

The bills could go before parliament as early as next month, people familiar with the legislation said, and be passed fairly quickly. They will not be made law before Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, visits Tokyo in mid-April.

Shoichi Nakagawa, the policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic party, said it was natural that Japan’s laws should match those of other nations, including China and South Korea, to protect its national interest and the interests of private companies.

But such laws could raise tensions with China by encouraging Japanese companies to explore in waters claimed by Beijing.

Japan and China are in dispute over the boundary between their exclusive economic zones in the East China Sea. Japan places it at a median line between the two countries, while China cites the size of its continental shelf, placing the boundary closer to Japan’s territory.

Chinese companies have started developing the Chunxiao gas field, which straddles the median line, leading Japanese officials to claim that China is siphoning off Japanese gas.

Both sides have proposed joint exploration of gas fields in the East China Sea but their positions are far apart, according to diplomats. Japan has said it would share costs of areas already developed by China and would enter a joint exploration agreement without prejudice to the broader EEZ dispute.

One Japanese official, who supports the legislation, said the status quo favoured China. “We have to have this law so Japanese companies can start drilling on our side of the line. The situation is not acceptable because the Chinese are pumping out gas.”

The second of the proposed bills would allow Japan’s coastguard to keep trespassers away from Japanese installations and remove them if they came closer than 500 metres.

One senior foreign ministry official admitted it could bring the territorial dispute with China to a head.

“The gas field development has some dangerous elements. If we take the same action that China is taking [extracting gas from close to the median line], there might even be a military conflict,” he said.

People close to the legislation, which is understood to have the support of Shinzo Abe, prime minister, said the aim was not to provoke conflict with China.

In practice, any company wanting to explore in disputed waters would have to negotiate with Japanese fishermen over fishing ground rights, a process that could take years. That would give time for a political solution.

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