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Gov’t releases East China Sea platform photos to appease Abe’s conservative supporters

(Tokyo Shimbun: July 23, 2015 – p. 6)

 

 The Abe administration has released new photos of China’s development of gas fields in the East China Sea. The mood for dialogue has been improving between Japan and China since the bilateral summit in April, so conservative supporters of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are unhappy with the conciliatory posture toward China. Another factor behind this is the sharp decline in cabinet support rating in light of criticism against the security bills. Therefore, playing this “China card” to demonstrate changes in Japan’s security environment is also seen as a tactic to deal with the adverse wind blowing against the legislation.

 

 When asked about the connection between the security bill deliberations and the release of the photos at his news conference on July 22, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga did not give a direct answer. He merely said: “We made a decision after taking various factors into account.”

 

 In June 2008, when China agreed with Japan on joint development of gas fields, there were only four platforms. The government has announced that there are 12 additional platforms. A senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) official revealed that, “The number of platforms has increased after June 2013, and we knew about all of them.”

 

 An event that triggered the latest release of photos is an article contributed by conservative journalist Yoshiko Sakurai to the July 6 issue of Sankei Shimbun entitled “China also building operational base in East China Sea.” Suga admitted China had been building new gas field facilities in the East China Sea at his news conference on the afternoon of the same day. When asked how many new gas field facilities were being built, Suga avoided confirming that there were 12 new platforms, saying he would refrain from commenting because this would “undermine diplomatic negotiations.”

 

 Subsequently, it was Suga who ordered MOFA – which did not want to reveal the details — to change tack. He obviously must have wanted to achieve a breakthrough in the situation with the security bills. Concerns had also been expressed regarding the conversion of these facilities for military use. Defense Minister Gen Nakatani suggested that “China may possibly install radars on the drilling platforms.” The above MOFA official observed that “the photos that graphically illustrate the situation surrounding Japan at present is meant to make the people understand the need for security legislation.”

 

 On the previous day, July 21, Abe was briefed by Shotaro Yachi, head of the National Security Council’s National Security Secretariat, on his trip to China. Yachi had received “unexpected special treatment,” (according to an informed source) having been able to meet with Premier Li Keqiang and State Councillor Yang Jiechi (with the rank of vice premier), China’s top foreign affairs official. Therefore, it was reckoned that “the trend toward improvement will not change; Japan should be able to overcome a certain extent of negative reaction from China,” according to a source at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence.

 

 China is now shown to be taking a tough stance in the East China Sea, in addition to its reclamation of reefs in the South China Sea, but it has no intention to meet Japan’s demand to discontinue the development of gas fields. The Chinese Foreign Ministry pointed out that “this is taking place in an area under China’s jurisdiction that is not in dispute at all.” Its criticism that Japan is “trying to spread the theory of China’s threat with malicious intent” will also appeal to anti-Japan forces in China.

 

 Commenting on the pros and cons of releasing the photos, a senior government official pointed out: “This will be a plus for the security bill deliberations, as well as for dealing with the conservatives. The adverse effect on bilateral relations is unexpectedly negligible.”

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