Build-up on remote Japanese atoll raises strategic questions

Japan says tiny Okinotorishima is an island, and part of its exclusive economic zone, but China sees this as a breach of maritime law

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 2:37am

In a lonely corner of the Pacific, 1,740 kilometres south of Tokyo, a tiny but potentially crucial piece of Japanese territory is now rising from the waves.

Photographs emerged this week showing that construction of a 160-metre dock on the atoll of Okinotorishima is well under way. The costly piece of infrastructure, which will dwarf the uninhabited land mass that it is designed to serve, is likely intended to help Japan argue for the extension of its exclusive economic zone a further 200 nautical miles into the Pacific.

China is not disputing that the territory is Japanese

The concrete dock is being constructed just outside the coral reef off the western end of Okinotorishima and will be used to unload fuel, water, construction materials and other supplies as development of the atoll continues.

Japan insists that Okinotorishima, halfway between Taiwan and Guam, is already an island. China says it is nothing more than a reef; it has only nine square metres of dry land.

The Tokyo metropolitan government, which administers Okinotorishima, announced in early 2010 that it would improve its infrastructure, constructing a lighthouse and navigational facilities.

Meanwhile, efforts have been under way for several years to grow more coral within the lagoon to make the atoll grow into an unambiguous island.

China, however, swiftly denounced the proposals as a breach of international maritime law. According to Beijing, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea makes it clear that Okinotorishima is merely a reef that cannot be used by Tokyo to extend its continental shelf or EEZ.

That has not dissuaded Tokyo, however, and the national government is sinking 75 billion yen (HK$6.1 billion) into the development plan.

The next phase will be the building of a road to link the dock with Kita-Kojima, one of the two pinpricks of land above the high-water mark. The reason they do not disappear beneath the waves is because they are protected by concrete embankments and blocks.

Officials in Tokyo confirmed yesterday that no new objections to the work on Okinotorishima have been raised by Chinese officials.

"That is probably not surprising as Beijing is making claims on pieces of real estate in the South China Sea that look suspiciously similar to Okinotorishima," said Jun Okumura, an international relations analyst with the Eurasia Group.

"China is not disputing that the territory is Japanese so they don't really care what we do with it; they are making the point that by international law, no matter how much concrete you pour it will never be an island," he added.

If it remains merely an atoll, that means that Chinese fishing boats will be able to operate in the surrounding waters and, theoretically, Chinese companies will be able to exploit any natural resources that can be dredged up from the seabed around the atoll.

Experts believe that a crust of manganese coats the ocean floor around Okinotorishima and would be a source of nickel, cobalt, platinum and a range of other elements.

Another consideration for Japan, said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University, are "naval concerns".

With tensions rising between China and Japan over other islands in the Pacific, it is not inconceivable that Japan's Maritime Self-Defence Forces might consider a permanent presence on Okinotorishima, Dujarric said.