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The government will begin building facilities on Okinotori Island in fiscal 2011 in a bid to develop and utilize the marine resources in its vicinity and protect Japan’s 200-nautical-mile (370-km) exclusive economic zone around it, government sources said Thursday.

The government plans to begin building a dock and a freight-handling site on Okinotori, which consists of the Higashikojima and Kitakojima islets, to make it a staging area for research on marine resources.

Marine experts believe the seabed around Okinotori is rich in natural resources such as rare-earth elements.

Rare-earth minerals are vital for manufacturing high-tech components such as automobiles, mobile phones and liquid crystal panels.

China dominates the global supply of 17 kinds of rare-earth minerals, and effectively stopped such exports to Japan last year.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry plans to launch detailed research into natural resources around Okinotori in fiscal 2012.

China, which has stepped up its naval activities and moved to preserve its maritime interests in recent years, argues that Okinotori is just a rocky outcropping and opposes Japan’s claim to an EEZ around the uninhabited islets, located about 1,740 km south of Tokyo.

Japan considers Okinotori, an atoll of coral reefs, its southernmost territory and technically part of Tokyo’s village of Ogasawara. It has a vast EEZ of about 400,000 sq. km that was set in 1996, larger than Japan’s land territory of 380,000 sq. km. In recent years Okinotori has been reinforced with concrete bulwarks to keep the islets from being submerged in high tides.

The government has already worked out a ¥75 billion, six-year project to develop Okinotori, earmarking funds in its fiscal 2011 budget for the project. It plans to build a 150- to 200-meter-long dock outside the island and a harbor road linking the two islets.

The dock will be large enough for big ships such as ocean-exploration vessels to moor there, while the harbor road will be wide enough for heavy machinery and vehicles to use.

Most of Okinotori Island is under the sea surface. Only the tops of the two islets, measuring about 50 meters in diameter, protrude about 1 meter above sea level at high tide. Japan has built steal breakwaters and concrete walls to protect the islets and to prevent erosion by waves.

Japan has continued work since 1987 to build breakwaters and walls to prevent the islets from submerging.

The government will start looking into the seabed around the islets and studying wave strength and direction before building the dock. It plans to build facilities resistant to stormy weather as the waters around Okinotori are very strong and concrete structures deteriorate quickly.

Last May, the Diet enacted a law that places Okinotori Island under the central government instead of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

The legislation stipulates the central government should build and manage ports on specific outliers, such as Okinotori and Minamitori islands, which serve as base points for the nation’s 370-km EEZ. Such works are usually undertaken by local governments.

Japan and China are locked in disputes over maritime interests, including gas exploration in the East China Sea, where the EEZs claimed by the two countries overlap.

Japan incorporated Okinotori into then Tokyo Prefecture in 1931. The island, under U.S. rule after World War II, was returned to Japan in 1968.

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