Spicks & Specks

Japan and China in the East China Sea

3 March 2005

The following is an occasional piece gleaned from the Internet about the Sino-Japanese dispute over resources in the East China Sea. (From 慧聪网石油行业频道, 12 July 2004). The article is interesting for its presentation of both an assertive and aggressive Chinese stance with the usual anti-Japanese and anti-American rhetoric, and a clear-eyed perception of the underlying problem -- an absolute scarcity of resources, exacerbated by U.S. control of the lion's share of the world's oil.


Sino-Japanese Energy Game

7 月 7 日,日本在东海日方单方面主张的所谓“中间线”以东的中日争议海域大张旗鼓地开始进行海底资源调查。日方调查行动的目的是探清该海域的海底油气资源,从而好跟中国政府在东海能源开发问题上进行“谈判”。

On 7 July, Japan with great fanfare began conducting seabed resource surveys to the east of their unilateral 'median line' in the East China Sea, an area disputed between China and Japan. The stated purpose is to map the seabed oil resources of the area and thus better 'negotiate' with the Chinese government over the development of the sea's resources.

我不敢贸然断言日本选择 7 月 7 日开始其调查行动是有意而为之,但事实上,在这个令所有中国人刻骨铭心的日子里,人们必然会将日方的挑衅性行动同六十七年前的那一段历史联系起来。即使像某些人士主张的那样抛开“历史的恩怨”不谈,那么在最近两三年时间里,很明显中日两国的确出现了一种竞争大于合作的态势。

I would not presume to declare categorically that there is any significance in the choice of 7 July as the date for beginning the survey. But connections will inevitably be drawn with provocative events that occurred this day 67 years ago, events that are indelibly etched in the Chinese consciousness. Even if we decide, like some, to put aside the 'grievances of history', it is very clear that during these past few years cooperation between the two countries has been overshadowed by competition.

自小泉连续参拜靖国神社开始,中日关系就陷入了“冰冻状态”,两国首脑已经连续 3 年没有互访。政治上的互不信任导致两国在经济领域的竞争日益加剧,在关系到重大国家利益的能源领域的争夺更趋于白热化。我们不能忘记一年前正是日本的强势介入使得本已如同铁板定钉的“安大线”工程化为泡影,国人为此无不扼腕叹息;在北非,日本也以高额援助为饵积极拉拢有关国家,极力争取当地高质量油田的开发权,而被日本视作的主要对手的就是中国。

Sino-Japanese relations have been glacial since Koizumi made his series of visits to Yasukuni Shrine. No visits have been exchanged between the heads of the two countries for three years in a row. The lack of mutual trust in the political arena has led to a sharpening of economic rivalry, reaching fever pitch in the field of energy, impinging as it does on vital national interests. We still cannot forget that one year ago, in an episode that can only dismay all Chinese, Japanese intervention caused the collapse of what was virtually an ironclad Sino-Russian agreement on the Angarsk-Daqing pipeline. In North Africa, the Japanese used the bait of massive foreign aid to persuade governments to award exploration rights for high-quality oil resources to Japan. China was regarded by the Japanese as their main competitor.

2003 年,中国已经超过日本,成为全球仅次于美国的第 2 大石油进口国,能源问题促使中国更主动地走向世界,在更广阔的空间寻求和保障自身利益。但当中国真正迈出这一步后,忽然之间我们发现,挡在面前的首要竞争对手居然不是美国,而是那个日本。

In 2003, China overtook Japan to become the world's second largest importer of oil after the U.S. The need for energy prompted China to venture out into the world in pursuit and defence of its interests in a larger arena. But when China took its first serious step, who could have imagined that the main rival blocking the way would be not America but Japan!


Given the open willingness of the U.S. to resort to force to protect its energy supplies, there is probably not a country in the world that dares challenge the Americans over oil and gas resources. As a result, there is a real limit to the oil-producing areas available to the two oil-hungry nations of China and Japan.


The situation of ever-increasing demand and limited sources of supply creates the possibility of clashes in energy. What turns this possibility into reality is the lack of mutual trust between the two countries, and more importantly Japan's concerns over Chinese development and growing strength.


Japan's decision to conduct seabed resource surveys has already altered what was previously a relatively low-key approach to the territorial dispute. Restricting China's development by means of the energy issue is part of Japan's strategic thinking.


With its continually growing strength and developmental needs, China's interests are set to expand into even larger and more widespread areas. In the process, Japan is not the only country that will experience a clash of interests with China, and such clashes will not be confined to energy resources. The path to China's rise will be anything but smooth.

This passage was published in July 2004 at the time of Sino-Japanese friction over Japan's moves to explore the seabed resources of the East China Sea.

In order to understand the article, certain background information is needed:

1. The events 67 years ago alluded to in the first paragraph refer to the Marco Polo Bridge incident of 7 July 1937, widely considered to be the start of the Sino-Japanese war. The incident marked the beginning of Japan's all-out attempt to conquer the whole of China.

For outsiders, it is sometimes difficult to grasp the mentalities involved. Although the events referred to took place two-thirds of a century ago, memories of past humiliations are kept alive and commemorated, to be pulled out at an opportune time. The Zhuhai prostitution incident of September 2003 is a good example of this (from People's Daily Online):

A hotel orgy involving nearly 400 Japanese male tourists and 500 Chinese prostitutes has sparked outrage on the mainland.

People were angry both because of the scale of the incident and the sensitive timing -- two days before the 72nd anniversary of the start of the Japanese army's occupation of Northeast China in 1931.

"The Japanese are animals. They deliberately selected the date to humiliate the Chinese people," one netizen wrote, citing the fact that the Japanese had attempted to raise their national flag at the hotel but to no avail.

On the other hand, knowing that they were dealing with a nation that has historic grievances and is highly sensitive to slights from Japan, one can only wonder at the Japanese decision to choose 7 July, of all days, to begin their survey. Gross insensitivity is about the mildest criticism that can be levelled.

2. At several places obvious references are made to the concept of 'China's Peaceful Rise'. This was first floated in November 2003 and envisaged that, unlike some emerging powers of the past, China's rise should be peaceful and not threaten other countries. The concept is specifically aimed at the 'China threat' theory. While the idea gained support for a while, the Chinese government eventually decided to downplay China's Peaceful Rise, starting around March 2004. (See The Rise and Descent of China's Peaceful Rise -- download the PDF). The article above takes a definite stand against the concept. In the first paragraph, after making some play of bitter historical memories, it makes a pointed reference to those who would put aside the 'grievances of history'. It then makes the point that rivalry is based on more than just historical memories. The final paragraph very clearly states that 'China's rise will be anything but peaceful'.

3. The passage is marked by a remarkably clear-eyed assessment of the situation even as it resorts to anti-American and anti-Japanese language. The main reference to America is in the third and fourth paragraphs. The writer notes that there is probably not a country in the world that would dare to stand up to the Americans (the Chinese says 在太岁头上动土 -- move earth above the head of Taisui, where Taisui is a god living underground. The meaning is 'to provoke someone superior in power or strength').

Whatever resentments the Chinese writer may have against America, discretion seems to be considered the better part of valour, because the article's venom is for the most part directed squarely at the Japanese. The author makes references to the Sino-Japanese war, visits by the Japanese PM to Yasukuni Shrine, and recent incidents in which Japan thwarted Chinese attempts to secure oil resources beyond its borders. The venom is apparent in the expression 那个日本 'that Japan', which I have not been able to translate properly but carries within it all the grudges that China holds.

The article lays the blame for the current situation at the feet of the Japanese. There is almost a note of paranoia in the accusation that Japan is deliberately trying to limit China's development by restricting its access to energy supplies. The idea of a Japanese plot is widely held in China and finds fertile ground in the victim mentality that marks much Chinese thinking about the country's modern history.

In portraying the Chinese as victims of the Americans and Japanese, however, the writer largely overlooks the fact that some other countries find themselves in a similar position vis-à-vis China. A notable example is India, which feels that China is thwarting its every move to gain access to oil supplies. For instance, see this article on India-China set for big-rig oil partnership (from India's Business Standard).

All-in-all, this article offers an succinct but interesting window onto the Chinese view of the world and the battle for oil resources that is shaping. Whatever the diplomatic stance that China is taking, the voice that is emanating from many quarters in China can only be described as strident and assertive.

For more information (including a map) see this article from Asia Times Online dated 27 July, Gas and oil rivalry in the East China Sea. For a broader background from a Peak Oil style perspective, see the Undeclared Oil War (Washington Post, 28 June 2004). For more recent developments, see this article from the International Herald Tribune of 25 February 2005, Pouring oil on the East China Sea. There is much, much more out there on the Internet.

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