Islands in the Sea–or Rocks?

Whilst attention in the South China Sea has been directed at China’s strategic movements and its own claims to territory, a lesser known dispute also threatens to erupt and challenge the frayed and fragile relationships in the region. The contention over Okinotori by Japan, Taiwan and to some extent China threatens to escalate instability in the region.

What is in dispute is the nature of Okinotori and whether it can be claimed by Japan or Taiwan. Japan claimed Okinotori in the 1920s and helped develop parts of the region in the 1930s. To that extent alone, Japan claims to have governance and sovereign rights over Okinotori and its surrounding waters. Japan has therefore argued that Okinotori is an island for the purposes of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Under UNCLOS, an island is a naturally formed area of land that is surrounded by water and is still above water at high tide. Japan has poured resources into assuring Okinotori fits this description. Firstly it has built concrete walls with slits to allow water through; by their definition, this allows water to virtually surround the island and prove that it exists above high tide, as well as preventing  further erosion. Secondly, it has also covered the landmass with a titanium net to cover sand to further protect against deterioration, costing $600 million.

On the other hand, Taiwan and China have been brought together in a rare case of cooperation in refuting Japan’s claims over Okinotori as an island, rather than its territorial claim to Okinotori itself. Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, has claimed that the atolls are nothing more than ‘isolated rocks’ 1,000 miles from Japan’s southernmost point. Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration has dismissed Japan’s claims completely and labelled the contentious area ‘international waters’.

So why is there a dispute over whether Okinotori is classified as an island or rocks? Under UNCLOS, rocks that cannot sustain human or economic life aren’t considered as ‘islands’ capable of possessing an exclusive economic zone. Where counties with a sea frontier are entitled to borders extending 200 nautical miles (or halved with their neighbours) under international law, Japan is attempting to secure rights to commercially fish in that area. This would constitute a 400,000 square km zone around Okinotori, as opposed to the 12 nautical miles that an atoll would possess; China and Taiwan see this as unreasonable given that this is a larger zone than the total area of Japan.

Taiwan’s main concern is its commercial interests in the region. On an annual basis, more than 100 Taiwanese shipping and fishing vessels venture around areas covered by Japan’s claim. Tensions flared at the end of April alone, when Japanese forces around Okinotori seized a Taiwanese fishing vessel approximately 150 nautical miles from Okinotori. Taiwan responded by sending two patrol ships and a frigate to the region.

China’s political motivations are in tandem; their support for Taiwan comes twofold–one the one hand, China’s black-letter interpretation of UNCLOS could be an attempt to emphasize Japan’s hypocrisy in condemning China’s claims in the same sea. Secondly, China’s undermining of Japan comes to disrupt the Japanese-US alliance and US influence in the region. Okinotori is often used by the US because of its proximity to Guam and Japan, as well as being a gateway to the East China Sea. A critical maritime route and a resource rich area, China’s objection to Japan’s claims is politically fuelled to curb Japanese control.

An ironic turn for this dispute is China’s conformity with international law and its restatement of UNCLOS as a matter of importance, in the face of its blatant reclamation attempts in the same sea. The Permanent Court of Arbitration is due to issue its judgement in the Philippines v China case within weeks, despite China consistently denying its legitimacy to hear the case. Moreover, this case will provide further jurisprudence on the status of island-rocks under international law, given China’s literal island-building plans.

The multiplicity of territorial claims and disputes in the South China Sea makes every political move and strategy highly significant in the volatile region. Adding another dispute into the mix, even if not grounded in a territorial claim, fuels uncertainty and tension in the resource-rich region. Whilst this dispute between the traditional alliance of Taiwan and Japan is unlikely to erupt further or become militarised, it does have broader implications for the Taiwanese relationship with China, the China-Japan power struggle and overall regional stability.