Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Bigger Picture: China’s Energy Exploration in the East China Sea and Japan’s Security Debate

The Bigger Picture: China’s Energy Exploration in the East China Sea and Japan’s Security Debate

Last week Japan released its annual defense review.  For the first time, it revealed photographs of Chinese offshore drilling rigs operating in the East China Sea.  The images reminded many of the international controversy that China stirred up in May 2014 when it sent the Hai Yang Shi You 981 offshore drilling rig (pictured below) into waters claimed by Vietnam.  The photographs reinforce the narrative that China is intent on pursuing its own interests, regardless of the consequences for its neighbors.  That, along with its island-building activities in the South China Sea, has made it increasingly difficult for Asian countries, like Indonesia and Malaysia, to set aside their concerns over Chinese actions in the region.

China offshore energy exploration

China’s foreign ministry quickly denounced the Japanese disclosure of the photographs.  It decried them as inflammatory and declared that Japan’s use of the photographs “provokes confrontation between the two countries, and is not constructive at all to the management of the East China Sea situation and the improvement of bilateral relations.”[1]

China maintains that the offshore drilling rigs that it has erected in the East China Sea are on its side of the median line through the two countries’ claims.  Thus, China has every right to develop the energy resources there.  Unfortunately, man-made demarcations cannot so neatly divide the East China Sea’s oil and natural gas deposits.  Rather, they tend to migrate towards areas of lower pressure.  Those occur whenever wells are drilled nearby.  Hence, Japan fears that Chinese wells will siphon off the oil and natural gas deposits under its claim from across the median line.

That prospect was thought to have been put to rest in 2008, when China and Japan agreed to jointly develop energy resources in the disputed waters of the East China Sea.  Neither side would unilaterally drill for oil or natural gas there.  But those were different times.  Since then, China has become not only more powerful, but also more willing to openly assert its power in the region.  Japan (whether consciously or not) antagonized China when Japan’s central government bought the disputed Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu in China) from private Japanese owners in 2012.  That prompted a sharp rise in the number of clashes between Chinese fishing boats and the Japanese coast guard around the islands, and China to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the disputed waters in November 2013.  At the same time, China did begin to unilaterally explore for oil and natural gas in those waters, as Japan’s photographs attest.

Even so, China may be correct to discern a political rationale for Japan’s photographic disclosure, though perhaps not the one that its foreign ministry seemed to intimate.  The main reason behind Japan’s disclosure may not have been to embarrass China, but rather to support Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s effort to pass security legislation that will enable Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to participate in collective self-defense—or in other words, to fight alongside an ally when either it or Japan is threatened.  Indeed, the photographic disclosure was made only a week before the upper house of the Japanese Diet starts debate on Abe’s new security bills.

The photographs surely boost the argument of Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), that there is a clear and present danger to Japan’s national interests and more must be done to protect them.  But a chorus of Japanese politicians of different political stripes has joined in opposition to Abe’s effort to push through the security legislation without a thorough debate.  Many, including some within the LDP, are concerned about passing the security bills without a clear understanding of the circumstances in which Japanese military forces could be used.  The ultimate vote could be a close one, given that the LDP holds a slim majority in the upper house.  Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but Abe may hope that they are worth a few votes too.

[1] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang’s Remarks on Japan’s Disclosure of China’s Oil and Gas Exploration in the East China Sea,” China Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release, July 23, 2015, .

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