Japan, Vietnam protest against China's gasfield activity, cinema in disputed seas

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that it is "extremely regrettable" that China is continuing its development activity in the area.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that it is "extremely regrettable" that China is continuing its development activity in the area.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO/HANOI (AFP, REUTERS) - Japan has lodged a protest with China over what it described as suspicious activity in a maritime area rich in gas deposits in the East China Sea, officials said Tuesday (Aug 1), while Vietnam condemned China’s construction and operation of a movie theatre on the Paracel islands in the disputed South China Sea. 

China and Japan have a longstanding dispute over islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan, which knows them as Senkaku, and claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu.

Tokyo and Beijing agreed in June 2008 to cooperate over oil and gas resources in the area, but negotiations stopped two years later amid rising tensions and have not resumed.

"We confirmed that China is engaged in some kind of activity by stopping mobile drilling ships" near the median line separating the two countries' exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the area, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

"It is extremely regrettable that China is unilaterally continuing its development activity," Suga, the government's top spokesman, told a press conference. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida made similar comments.

Suga added that Japan lodged the protest late last month after noticing the activity but did not specify what exactly the Chinese ships were doing. Chinese drilling ships were last spotted near the median line in October 2016, Kyodo News and the Sankei Shimbun daily reported.

So far, China has built 16 drilling platforms on its side near the median line, the Asahi Shimbun reported.

Suga urged Beijing to resume stalled negotiations to jointly develop resources in the region, as discussed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September last year.

The gas field under the joint development agreement lies in an area where both countries' EEZs overlap.

Japan says the median line between the two nations should mark the limits of their respective EEZs, but China insists the border should be drawn closer to Japan, taking into account the continental shelf and other features of the ocean.

Meanwhile in Hanoi, Vietnam's foreign ministry slammed China's cinema on the Woody Island in the Paracels, which are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, as infringing Vietnam's sovereignty.

“That action by China has infringed Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa Archipelago, violated international law and cannot alter Vietnam’s sovereignty over this archipelago,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said, using the Vietnamese name for the islands. “Vietnam opposes it and demands that China not repeat similar actions.” 

Telephone calls to the Chinese embassy in Vietnam to seek comment went unanswered. Officials of China’s foreign ministry were not immediately available for comment.  

Tension between the neighbours revived in mid-June when oil drilling began in Vietnam’s Block 136/3, which is licensed to Vietnam’s state oil firm, Spain’s Repsol and Mubadala Development Co of the United Arab Emirates.  The block lies inside the U-shaped “nine-dash line” that marks the vast area China claims in the sea and overlaps what it says are its own oil concessions.

China has urged Vietnam to stop the drilling while Vietnam has said countries should respect its right to drill in its waters.  

China claims most of the energy-rich South China Sea through which about US$5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.  China took full control of the Paracels in 1974 after a naval showdown with Vietnam.  

Woody Island is the seat of what China calls Sansha city, its administrative centre for the South China Sea.  Though China calls it a city, Sansha’s permanent population is no more than a few thousand, and many of the disputed islets and reefs in the sea are uninhabited.

The cinema on Sansha is equipped with the most advanced projection equipment, China’s state news agency Xinhua has said.