Page 1 of 2 China all at sea over Japan island row
By Peter J Brown
Japan's Okinotori Island, which has a Tokyo postal address even though it lies
roughly 1,770 kilometers south of the capital and it is actually a pair of tiny
islets, has become a bone of contention for China.
Among other things, China refuses to grant it island status, and refers to it
instead as an atoll, reef or simply a rock. By doing so, China hopes to
throttle back Japan's plan to create an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) there.
The dispute over Okinotori, which Japan calls Okinotorishima, persists because
it involves strategic concerns and rights to undersea resources over an area
that is roughly equivalent to the entire land mass of the four main Japanese
At an undersea resource development conference hosted by
Kyushu University last December that was attended by experts from China, Japan
and South Korea and elsewhere, the cobalt-rich manganese crusts around
Okinotori were highlighted. Although "rich natural resources" in the area are
frequently mentioned as well by China, details are lacking.
At the East Asian Seas Congress in Manila last November, Japan's submission to
the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) in
March 2009 was discussed. This document addressed seven regions between Japan
and the Philippines comprising 740,000 square kilometers. Besides potential
overlapping claims with the United States and the Republic of Palau - not
involving Okinotori - Japan is confronted by both China and the Republic of
Korea (South Korea), which filed complaints last year with the CLCS concerning
Japan's actions on Okinotori. 
When the Democratic Party of Japan-led government headed by Prime Minister
Yukio Hatoyama came to power last year, it wasted no time in declaring that
Japan is allocating US$7 million in 2010 to create a facility on Okinotori in a
bid to firmly establish yet another foothold there. This may seem like a large
sum, but it represents less than 3% of the total amount spent thus far by Japan
to sustain this remote island. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been
allocated by the Japanese over the past two decades.
Japan now finds itself indebted to Vietnam, albeit indirectly. Vietnam is
exposing curious contradictions that it has detected in China's case against
Japan in this instance.
Vietnam, along with other Southeast Asian nations, has a territorial dispute
with China in the South China Sea. Last year, the Vietnamese government
submitted a national report on the limits of its continental shelf "which lie
200 nautical miles beyond the country's baselines in the northern part of the
East Sea [Vietnam's name for the South China Sea]" to the CLCS. This took place
in late August.
Together, Vietnam and Malaysia also presented another joint report to the CLCS
on the continental shelves of both countries, "which extend out over 200
nautical miles from their baselines in the southern part of the East Sea".
The Vietnamese national report and the Vietnam-Malaysia joint report preceded
the approval by the Japanese Diet (parliament) of a law in 2010 that authorizes
the central government - not local government - to manage and control both
Okinotori and the even more remote Minamitori Island, southeast of Tokyo - and
about 290 kilometers more distant than Okinotori.
While China dismisses all of these actions by Japan as illegal, it is anxiously
looking over its shoulder at the emboldened Vietnamese.
"The construction of infrastructure will not change Okinotori Reef's legal
position," said China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu at a press
briefing in January, adding that this violates international maritime law. 
Japan claimed Okinotori, also known as Douglas Reef or Parece Vela, in 1931 as
part of Ogasawara village in the prefecture of Tokyo, and officially named it
"The Japanese claim to an EEZ and continental shelf around Okinotorishima is
based on several factors," said Associate Professor Peter Dutton of the China
Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College. "First, Japanese
scholars claim that Okinotorishima is an island that qualifies under the United
Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for an EEZ and continental
shelf in that it sustains economic activity, even though it is apparently not
much more than 10 square meters in size at high tide.
"This argument has only the most tenuous support under the current state of
international law. The Japanese seem to recognize this fact and have set out a
second legal basis, namely that Japan has longstanding historic interests in
Okinotorishima, the adjacent waters, and the resources of the surrounding
seabed. In Japan's view, these interests have consolidated over time into
legally protected rights."
China points to Article 121 of UNCLOS, which defines an island as "a naturally
formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide".
China designates it as a rock under the same article - rocks cannot sustain
human habitation or economic life - because a rock by itself cannot be used to
claim either an EEZ or by extension a continental shelf submerged in a
relatively shallow sea.
By acting as if it has legal standing under UNCLOS, China has suddenly opened
the door for Vietnam, and Vietnam has seized the opportunity.
The strategic importance of Okinotori cannot go unnoticed as it sits halfway on
a line between the huge US military base on the island of Guam and Taiwan.
While divergent Chinese and Japanese strategic interests are driving this
dispute, China's need to navigate freely is increasing.
"China has staked legal positions that have de-legitimized foreign military
operations in a coastal country's EEZ. China's objections to US military
activities in its EEZ are based on these legal perspectives," said Dutton. "On
the other hand, as China's naval power has grown over the last couple of
decades, China's strategy for controlling the outcome of events throughout East
Asia in times of crisis has also evolved. During times of crisis, China now has
aspirations of challenging outside naval powers for control of the waters
between the first and second island chain." (The first island chain encompasses
the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea. The second
encompasses the Japan Sea, the Philippines Sea and the Indonesia Sea.)
This puts China in an awkward position to say the least.
"To be consistent with its demand that the US cease performing military
operations in and above China's EEZ, China would not be able to undertake
military operations in the waters of Japan's EEZ surrounding Okinotori. As
such, to preserve their own security interests, China refuses to recognize
Japan's claim," said Dutton.
Prior to Vietnam's move, the chief objective here for Japan had been to
politely ignore China's protests and to ensure that, above all else, Okinotori
should not somehow sink beneath the sea.
"There is no change in the nature of the dispute. Japan has been planting coral
on Okinotori to secure its status as an 'island', while China keeps criticizing
[and asserting that] it is a 'rock', so as not to allow Japan's EEZ," said
Yukie Yoshikawa, senior research fellow at the Reischauer Center for East Asian
Studies in Washington, DC.
Planting coral there is just one of the latest Japanese measures, which have
included pouring tons of concrete, at a cost of $280 million, to encase both of
the islets, as well as covering them with a titanium net which cost another $50