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Crossing the Line Again: China Targets Natural Resources in Japan’s EEZ

China’s unilateral intrusions appear targeted at making claims for deposits of rare metals and methane hydrate discovered earlier by Japanese researchers.



A Japan Coast Guard plane patrols Japan's coastal and economic zone regions in the vicinity of Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan

In early June, it was confirmed that the Chinese oceanographic research vessel Dong Fang Hong 3 conducted activities in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) north of Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture. An interview with a government official on June 25 revealed that the vessel was strongly suspected of sampling marine sediments.

China’s growing interest in the region is evident. It had started surveying the region, noted for being potentially rich in mineral resources, as early as 2018. China is expected to make even bolder moves to expand its control of the waters through research activities such as analyzing seabed samples.

In a further attempt to acquire the right to develop resources in waters surrounding Japan, China has published state-sponsored papers on the results of unauthorized surveys in recent years. Using “scientific findings” to refute Japan’s position has become its latest trend.

China is likely to use the same modus operandi again. Japan needs to take countermeasures against China’s attempts to alter the status quo through the authority of what it calls “science.” 

The Dong Fang Hong 3 Incident

The Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has reported that Dong Fang Hong 3 conducted research without the consent of the Japanese government from June 4 to 7, 2022, in seas some 70km north of Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture.

Conditions at the site have led government officials to believe that a cylindrical sampling device called a piston corer was used. The device allows sediments to be collected while keeping the layers intact by plunging a tube into the seabed. 

China's research vessel Dong Fang Hong 3 using a crane in Japan's exclusive economic zone off Ishigaki Island, Okinawa Prefecture on June 4, 2022. (Courtesy: the Regional Coast Guard Headquarters.)

Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) equipped with underwater cameras and robotic arms are also believed to have been used to excavate the seafloor and collect sediments.

According to automatic identification system (AIS) data on the internet, Dong Fang Hong 3 has been active at the Yaeyama Knoll located in the deepest part of the Okinawa Trough, which is about 2,000 meters deep. The knoll rises to about 200 meters above the seafloor. Another Chinese research vessel is known to have surveyed the site in 2018 using an ROV, and the results were published in a paper in 2020.

Intruding Based On Japan’s Research

In 2017, just before China’s earlier survey of the site, a team from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) published a paper about its discovery of the Yokosuka site, a hydrothermal activity zone at Yaeyama Knoll. 

The Yokosuka site may have deposits of resources such as rare metals and methane hydrate, a compound that is anticipated as a next-generation fuel source. 

A government official said, “China is clearly selecting the sea area based on information from Japan. It is probably systematically investigating the actual amount of resource deposits.”

Operating Outside the Agreed Rules

Japan and China have a mutual notification system that involves giving prior notice to each other through diplomatic channels before conducting scientific research activities in the other country’s territory past the geographical Japan-China Median Line. However, it became a dead letter once China unilaterally decided not to comply. 

China’s suspected resource exploration goes beyond the realm of scientific research and poses a major problem to Japan’s ability to manage its own natural resources. 

With China in mind, Japan revised the Mining Act in 2012 to regulate resource exploration, which now requires permission from the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, regardless of purpose. 

The Japan Coast Guard has the authority to conduct on-site inspections and issue cease-and-desist orders. However, Japanese patrol vessels cannot exercise their authority against research vessels because the public vessels have jurisdictional immunity under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Protesting through diplomatic channels is the strongest response that Japan can take under the current circumstances. But China has shown no indication of complying. 

For many years, Japan has been unable to ascertain the content of China’s research at the site, and as one government official put it, the government recognizes that it is “faced with the need for a new trump card to counter China’s outrages.”


(Read the report in Japanese at this link.)

Author: The Sankei Shimbun 

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