In the past, China and Japan disputed the right to develop offshore gas reserves of the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands under their Chinese name).
Senkaku is a group of five small volcanic islands and three "rocks" considered too small for human habitation, located in the East China Sea 410 km (255 miles) southwest of mainland Okinawa, 170 km (106 miles) northeast of Keelung, Taiwan, and 145 km (90 miles) northwest of the Japanese Ishigaki Islands.
Energy-hungry China was exploring the area and preparing to develop the gas fields. Japan was anxious to stop it.
After years of negotiations, historical and economic reality finally compelled them to lay aside the dispute. Japan will provide technological and investment support for the joint development of Shirakaba and Longjing/Asunaro.
At another location near a possible median line, the two countries are yet to determine mutually agreed sites for joint exploration. The unnamed area of 2,700 square kilometers is just south of Longjing/Asunaro.
Japan and China have both been quick to assure their people that they have not abandoned their previously expressed positions. China is currently developing two gas fields located in its economic zone, which are not covered by the agreement.
The problem concerned the demarcation line in the exclusive economic zones. China said the line should be the edge of the continental shelf, which approaches the Okinawa archipelago. Japan maintained that the boundary between the two nations' exclusive economic zones in the East China Sea is the median line between their coastlines.
Japan has more than once accused China of drilling in, or too close to, its exclusive economic zone, demanding that it has the right to know the results of Chinese research there. China proposed a joint project in the disputed area. They have held several rounds of talks, none of them successful.
The two countries even sent warships and patrol aircraft to the area, and Japanese generals said coastguard ships should protect the offshore project in the East China Sea and proposed reinforcing the naval group patrolling the country's southern borders.
In the end, though, nobody wanted to fight. About three years ago, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) started an exploration and drilling project off Chunxiao (the Shirakaba fields). In response, Japan granted exploration rights for the area to Teikoku Sekiyu (Empire Oil), which never started working there because it feared for its personnel.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry submitted official protests over granting the license in the East China Sea to Teikoku Sekiyu, which Chinese diplomats described as "an open provocation and infringement on the interests and sovereignty of China."
In short, political considerations only added fuel into the fire, deprived Japanese companies of lucrative contracts, and resulted in a boycott of Japanese goods in China.
In May this year, Chinese President Hu Jintao went to Tokyo, where he agreed with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to work jointly in the disputed area.
The recent statement by the Japanese Foreign Ministry avoids mention of another gas field north of Asunaro, because Japan and China do not want South Korea to join the fray.
Seoul has more than once hinted that gas projects in the area infringe on its economic rights. The region's third dragon has its own ideas about the demarcation of economic zones.
The main thing for the two countries' leaders is to convince their people that they have not betrayed their national interests, which is why they write about concessions the other partner has made, and assure the people that their political stances have not changed.
During a joint press conference in Tokyo, Japan's Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Akira Amari said the agreement was "a considerable achievement in strategic bilateral relations."
Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura described it as "an example of the two countries' ability to solve very complicated problems at the negotiating table." He added, though, that "Japan and China have different stands, and the talks [on their rapprochement] will be very long."
The Japanese-Chinese agreement on the joint development of the gas fields in the East China Sea is a substantial, even if enforced, movement away from ideologically laden positions.
One would like to see similar agreements on the joint development of the Kuril Islands signed between Russia and Japan in the foreseeable future. The foundation for such an agreement has been laid by a recent Gazprom announcement about a possible increase in gas production at the Sakhalin-II offshore field.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.