Days of an International Agreement on the East China Sea Long Gone: Tanaka’s 1974 Plan

Shinzo Abe has ‘closed the door for dialogue [between Japan and China] with his own hands’. That is according to Cheng Yonghua, China’s Ambassador to Japan. Cheng claims that Abe’s decision to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine has led to a further deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations, which were already at an impasse given the intensifying rivalry between the two Asian giants regarding ownership of islands in the East China Sea.

Japan owns the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu to the Chinese), a position always disputed by Beijing – and Taiwan for what it’s worth. The only way any potential agreement over the East China Sea dispute will emerge is through high-level diplomacy between the Japanese and Chinese leadership. Such a scenario currently looks dead in the water.

The Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands are now among the world's most recognisable
The Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands are now among the world’s most recognisable

It would, of course, be in the interests of China and Japan to find a workable solution to both the possession of the islands and the exploitation of their surrounding resources. Within rich fishing grounds, and thought to be the location of potentially significant oil and gas reserves, the joint exploitation of energy resources in the East China Sea has long been mooted even if it has never come close to materialising.

In 1974 Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka invited France and the UK to help ‘in development of oil in the China Sea’. Tanaka was seeking an international agreement for oil exploration and extraction around the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands which would also include China and Taiwan.

‘Some way would have to be found to persuade China’, a British diplomatic cable noted. ‘We would expect the USA to try to persuade Taiwan to cooperate’. Whilst there was undoubtedly some concern over China’s participation in any agreement, the fact that Japan was willing to internationalise the dispute is far removed from the present situation. The ‘Oil Shock’ of 1973 was probably influential in Tanaka’s decision – acknowledging the need to find alternative sources of oil in case of another Arab embargo – yet he could still have tried to act unilaterally.

For their part, the British were sceptical about the proposed agreement. Whilst conceding that it was a desirable path of development, Foreign Office correspondence on the matter notes ‘the unresolved territorial disputes in the area’, which still resound to this day. What they determined as more likely to scupper any deal, however, was the status of Taiwan:

Our view is that there is little or no chance of the People’s Republic of China agreeing to participate in any scheme in which Taiwan was included as an equal and independent partner.

The British were right not to be too overoptimistic. The deal fell through. Interestingly, the Japanese did sign an agreement for joint energy development with South Korea (another traditional rival) in another part of the East China Sea, despite China’s fury. An overarching international agreement – which would likely have had a lasting impact – remained elusive.

The Japan-South Korea Agreement which riled China
The Japan-South Korea Agreement which riled China

Nowadays, the British are far removed from the East China Sea dispute. Taiwan, despite maintaining a territorial claim, is similarly isolated. It is down to China and Japan. Constant jostling between opposing coastguards, declarations of air identification zones and diplomatic silence render progress impossible. The true extent of the oil and gas reserves around the islands remains unknown and underdeveloped.

Energy reserves in the disputed zone remain underexploited - attempts at joint development have foundered
Energy reserves in the disputed zone remain underexploited – attempts at joint development have foundered

Historical enmity refuses to die down despite the efforts of several noteworthy citizens. For instance, Shi Jinkai, a Chinese man from Harbin who helps repatriate Japanese people abandoned in China as orphans at the end of the Second World War.

Or there is Reiko Miyake, a Japanese woman who has established a photographic gallery to help break down the stereotypical views of the Chinese held by many of her countrymen.

Just for once it would be nice to see the politicians take a similar lead and set aside their petty jealousies to enable interdependent development that would benefit the region as a whole.

Source: National Archives (Ref: FCO 21/1302)


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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