Tokyo has stepped up its rhetoric over claims that Okinotorishima is an island and not rocks under international law in the wake of a tribunal ruling in The Hague this week on the South China Sea.
On Tuesday, the Permanent Court of Arbitration found in favor of the Philippines in its territorial dispute with China, saying that Beijing had no “legal basis” to claim “historic rights” to islets in the waters.
Adding to the geopolitical fallout, analysts say the decision could potentially undermine Japan’s claim to Okinotorishima, which it administers, but which is also claimed by Taiwan and is geographically similar to the South China Sea islets.
Tuesday’s ruling said the islands in the disputed Spratly archipelago are rocks, not islands, because they cannot sustain a community of people or economic activities, and thus can have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf based on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The verdict also said Hughes Reef and Mischief Reef, which make up part of the Spratlys, generate no maritime entitlement as they are submerged at high tide.
Okinotorishima, located about 1,740 km south of Tokyo, is a collection of tiny specks that are barely visible at high tide.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Thursday asserted the position that Okinotorishima is an island under international law and consequently entitled to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
On Friday, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida reiterated this stance.
“Since 1931, when the interior ministry recognized the island (as Okinotorishima), it has been an island. The verdict does not set the standards for what constitutes rock,” Kishida told reporters.
Kishida also said the verdict’s legal ramifications apply only to China and the Philippines.
Okinotorishima, which sits amid rich natural resources including rare metal, is considered to be a strategically and politically important feature for Japan, which has added concrete embankments to protect it from wave damage.
Despite Tokyo’s claim, China and Taiwan have asserted that Okinotorishima is merely rocks, with former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou making the comment as recently as April.