After an international court issued a stinging rebuke of Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea on Tuesday, the next flash point to emerge could be a bit closer to home — but just a bit.
About 1,740 km south of Tokyo sits a collection of tiny specks known as Okinotorishima. Controlled by Japan but also claimed by Taiwan, the atoll where just two small outcrops jut out at high tide is seen by Tokyo as an economic and strategic outpost in a volatile region.
The only hitch? Critics say it is effectively a man-made islet, similar to the dredged Chinese features the court dismissed as mere “rocks,” since it cannot support human life and could even disappear under the waves in a strong typhoon.
Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an island is defined as “a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide.” According to the treaty, of which Japan is a signatory, “rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone.”
To fend off claims that Okinotorishima is not an island, and therefore not entitled to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Tokyo has invested heavily not in reclaiming land but in adding coral reefs and concrete embankments to protect the existing and crafted environment.
The seabed of the EEZ is believed to be rich in rare metals and other untapped natural resources.
Earlier this year, the government reportedly set aside ¥13 billion for rebuilding storm-damaged facilities on the atoll.
Beijing has been particularly critical over Tokyo’s EEZ claim, despite its own man-made islets in the South China Sea.
This has largely been over security concerns, experts say.
Okinotorishima sits in strategic waters, in between two island chains that separate China from the Pacific — an area where Chinese and U.S. forces would likely collide in any potential conflict.
Experts say that by maintaining effective control of Okinotorishima and the resulting EEZ, Japan could create a net that limits access to the area and beyond by Chinese ships and nuclear submarines.
But despite anger in Beijing, any criticism by China is likely to be muted since it has embarked on its own land-reclamation projects in the Spratly and Paracel chains in the South China Sea and continues to claim EEZs around several features there, even after Tuesday’s court ruling.
“The case of Okinotorishima is related to China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea in the sense that Japan claims an EEZ from barely above-tide elevations,” said Jeffrey Hornung, an Asia expert with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA in Washington.
Hornung believes the ruling may cause problems for Japan.
“In the same way that Washington’s nonsignatory status of UNCLOS remains a blight on its credibility to take others to task for convention-related issues, Okinotorishima stands as the Achilles’ heel in Tokyo’s credibility to take a harder position against China in the South China Sea,” he said.
“It is simply too hard to ignore the hypocrisy: Japan criticizes China for claiming islands out of low-tide elevations or rocks while Tokyo itself is doing the same thing in Okinotorishima.”
Tokyo, together with ally Washington, has long championed the “rules-based” liberal order in solving maritime and territorial disputes, and has taken a hard line against China’s aggressive actions in both the South and East China seas, where it has a separate dispute with Beijing over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands.
June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami political science professor and Asia expert, said that while it is unlikely such a case would be brought before the the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, Tokyo would probably lose one focusing on an Okinotorishima exclusive economic zone, based on the South China Sea ruling.
But Hornung said the cases differ in that Japan is not undertaking significant island-building as has not militarized the site, as Beijing has done on some of its outposts.
“Instead, the structures it has built consist of a light beacon, a marine investigation facility, radar, and other sensors that help Japan monitor its expansive EEZ claim,” he said.
In the longer-term, the precedent set by Tuesday’s ruling could have other potentially more serious knock-on effects.
Citing the decision not to ascribe island status to Taiwan-controlled Itu Aba — the biggest land feature in the South China Sea — Eric Hyer, an associate professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, said that other Japanese-claimed features may also not qualify as islands.
“The wider implication of this is that Okinotorishima, as well as the Senkaku Islands and Takeshima, would likely be determined to not qualify as islands and therefore do not constitute a land feature for determining a 200-nautical-mile EEZ,” Hyer said.
“So, this … decision has international legal implications far beyond the South China Sea, influencing territorial disputes involving Japan, China, and Korea,” he added.
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