A Chinese survey ship has been conducting activities in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near Okinotorishima for more than a week, the Japan Coast Guard has said, the longest time spent in the waters without permission in a decade.

Tokyo has said that the vessel, which was spotted trailing an apparent cable from its stern, has been conducting the activities in the waters without prior consent from the government since July 9. The period was the longest in 10 years, NHK reported. Japan has protested the move via diplomatic channels.

On Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry swatted away the protests by dismissing the claim that Okinotorishima, some 1,740 km south of Tokyo, is an island. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) stipulates that prior consent is needed to carry out surveys in another country’s EEZ.

“According to the UNCLOS, Okinotori is not an island, but rocks which shall have no EEZ and continental shelf. Japan’s unilateral claim has no legal basis,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, adding that the research ship “is entitled to freedom of scientific research” in the high seas.

“They can do it freely and they do not need to get any approval from the Japanese side,” Hua added.

Okinotorishima is controlled by Japan but also claimed by Taiwan. The atoll, where just three small outcrops jut out at high tide, as well as the associated EEZ is seen by Tokyo as an economic and strategic foothold — and territory multiplier that encompasses 400,000 sq. km in a volatile region of the Pacific.

While not a claimant, China, which has periodically conducted surveys in the waters, 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, 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.

By maintaining effective control of Okinotorishima and the resulting EEZ, Japan could theoretically create a net that limits access to the area and beyond by Chinese ships and nuclear submarines.

Under 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 an EEZ, Tokyo has invested heavily not in reclaiming land but in adding coral reefs and concrete embankments to protect the existing and crafted environment.

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