• The Associated Press


Japan will begin studying ways to foster the growth of coral reefs near two islets at the center of a territorial dispute with China, a government official said Monday.

The research will involve cultivating and transplanting coral eggs, said Fisheries Agency official Ryutaro Yamamoto.

Yamamoto said researchers and officials were set to meet Tuesday to discuss ways to build up the tiny, uninhabited Okinotorishima islets.

Japan has built up the top of the outcroppings, about 1,700 km southwest of Tokyo, with concrete embankments to keep the land from submerging in high tides.

It uses the islets to extend its exclusive economic zone far into the Pacific Ocean under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. But Beijing argues they are rocks — not islands — and that Tokyo therefore cannot claim exclusive rights to the surrounding area, or prevent China from exploiting nearby resources.

Yamamoto said the government has allocated 300 million yen from this year’s budget as part of a three-year study on ways to expand coral reefs, which are said to be in decline around the islets.

Officials and experts meeting Tuesday will look into coral-growing methods, including collecting coral eggs, cultivating them in tanks and transplanting them, with experiments expected to begin as early as May, Yamamoto said.

He said scientists in Japan and Australia have been studying the method, but there has been scant large-scale research thus far.

Yamamoto said the project is intended to foster coral growth in other areas besides Okinotorishima.

“The primary purpose of the project is to conduct research, as there are not many technologies to grow corals. And it would be great if we could apply the technology” to expand coral in other areas, including Okinawa, he said.

“We also want to protect (the Okinotorishima islets), as they are an important (part of) Japan’s territory,” Yamamoto said.

The dispute with China over the outcroppings heated up in 2004 after a Chinese research ship twice came within 370 km of them, triggering a diplomatic protest by Tokyo.

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