Japan approves gas exploration at disputed waters

Japan's ruling party on Friday endorsed legislation aimed at boosting Tokyo's claim to undersea gas deposits at disputed waters of the East China Sea and mobilizing the coast guard to protect Japanese drilling facilities, a party official said. The proposed bill would set a 500-meter (1,650-foot) safety zone around Japanese facilities on the country's continental shelf or in its exclusive economic zone.

The Liberal Democratic Party plans to submit the bill, which is aimed at ensuring safety of Japanese companies' gas drilling operation, to Parliament late January, a party official said on condition of anonymity, citing internal policy. The bill could fuel an ongoing feud between Tokyo and Beijing, which are also disputed over interpretation of Japan's wartime actions, Japanese history textbooks and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to a Tokyo war shrine.

China has already extracted gas from one field, triggering protests from Japan, which fears the reserves might run dry. Japan wants China to stop drilling and proposed a joint project. Talks on the gas fields between the two energy hungry countries have stalled and a proposed meeting in October failed to materialize after Beijing balked at Koizumi's latest visit to Yasukuni Shrine that defends Japan's militaristic past.

Japan in July gave Teikoku Oil Co. drilling rights in the disputed area, but drilling has not begun. Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both Japan and China have signed, coastal countries can claim an economic zone extending 370 kilometers (230 miles) from their shores. The disputed reserves lie within both countries' claims, and the United Nations has until May 2009 to rule on the matter.

Unauthorized entrants to Japan's safety zone would face up to a year in prison or fines of 500,000 yen (US$4,310; Ђ3,590). The bill doesn't mention the East China Sea, but allows Japan's Coast Guard to better protect Japanese interests there, reports the AP. N.U.

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