Japan yesterday approved a request by Teikoku Oil Co to drill for natural gas in the East China Sea along a disputed sea border with China, prompting Beijing to warn about the possibility of worsening ties.
Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Shoichi Nakagawa said Tokyo would allow test drilling east of the line that Japan considers its sea boundary with China -- a demarcation that Beijing disputes. The permit lasts for two years but can be extended for a total of eight years.
Tokyo's announcement came nearly three months after Teikoku Oil had asked for government permission in late April for exploration rights.
Teikoku Oil, based in Tokyo, has said it wants to drill test wells in three areas spanning a total of 400km2. Teikoku Oil's Masaaki Akasaka said that officials would spend about a month discussing with the ministry how to ensure the safety of the company's workers in any possible standoff with Chinese vessels.
Following Tokyo's decision yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao (劉建超) requested that Tokyo refrain from taking "action that will hurt China's sovereign right and hurt the bilateral relations between China and Japan."
"If Japan persists in granting drilling rights to companies in disputed waters it will cause a serious infringement of China's sovereign right," he told reporters in Beijing.
Though decades-old surveys have suggested that the East China Sea has potentially rich gas reserves, it's unclear how much actually lies beneath the sea floor.
China has already built a drilling platform west of the line that Japan regards as the two sides' sea boundary. But Tokyo has demanded Beijing stop exploration over worries that reserves on their side might be sucked dry.
Nakagawa denied that Tokyo was trying to "provoke China," adding: "This is just a domestic procedure."
He said that it was Tokyo's ``unavoidable responsibility to protect the activities of Japan's private sector.''
Asked whether that meant Tokyo would consider dispatching Japan's navy to protect Teikoku Oil workers, Nakagawa simply said: "We have various options."
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