Japan wary of China’s push to give names to undersea features close to disputed areas
Japan says it is “watching very closely” the actions of the Chinese delegation to an international maritime organisation after it accepted Chinese names for undersea features that have previously been surveyed and named by Tokyo and are near its exclusive economic zone.
An official for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo told South China Morning Post that the applications do not, at present, “directly affect the interests of nearby maritime nations” but some officials have described Beijing’s moves as “aggressive” and accused China of “seeking to assume control over territory”.
The Sub-Committee on Undersea Feature Names (SCUFN), which comes under the International Hydrographic Organisation and is based in Monaco, received 50 applications from the State Administration of China in 2016 to name undersea features, including sea mounts and ridges.
The organisation released its annual report on December 21, in which it said 16 of the applications in the Pacific had been accepted while 34 were not. The Yomiuri newspaper reported that the sub-committee rejected most of the names because “naming them in Chinese may develop into disputes with coastal countries”.
Among the applications that were turned down were eight close to the Southern Kyushu-Palau Ridge Region, which runs south from Okinotorishima, Japan’s most southerly island, towards Palau to the south.
At least two of the sites that China sought to name lie in an area that Japan applied to exercise sovereignty over to the United Nations commission examining nations’ applications to claim continental shelf territory.
In 2014, the panel delayed a decision on Tokyo’s application for the region, which covers 252,000 sq km to the east of the Philippines and borders Palau’s EEZ. Six of the features that China applied to name appear to fall within Palau’s waters.
Earlier this year, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing said Japan’s claim to the region is “illegal” and China does not recognise the EEZ or continental shelf claims of the Okinotori.
In 2012, SCUFN approved Chinese names for three undersea features some 450km from Miyakojima Island, in Okinawa Prefecture. Japan’s EEZ stretches 370km from Miyakojima.
The ministry in Tokyo has emphasised that China has sought to name features that are in international waters and is therefore free to conduct such research. It is clear, however, that Japan is concerned at what is seen as a pattern of assumption of territories in the region and Beijing’s failure to cooperate – or even communicate – with Japan on surveys of the area.
The features close to Japan’s EEZ have previously been surveyed and have Japanese names.
“This sub-committee sits for the purpose of selecting names for features so they can be standardised for academic purposes,” the official said. “Naming does not directly affect the interests of other maritime nations, although we are watching the situation closely.”
But Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, says Japan needs to make its concerns heard very clearly and that the foreign ministry is “too anxious about not provoking China to stand up for Japan”.
“This sort of aggression by the Chinese is nothing new,” he said “They have made many claims against remote islands in the region and this is just the latest example ... Japan needs to protest any such move because failing to do so is only going to cause more and bigger problems in the future.”
China is aware of the competition for undersea resources and rights, but naming features is “a common practice of the world’s maritime powers”, the Xinhua news agency said.
Over the past six years, China has successfully had 76 names approved, including the 16 in 2016.
Among the 50 Chinese proposals this year, 21 features are in the controversial nine-dash line, with which Beijing claims most of the South China Sea.
The line had been declared by an international arbitration tribunal in Hague as invalid in July, a month before China’s submission.
According to the SCUFN regulations, naming a feature does not necessarily give the namer any rights to it, since any country can apply names to an unnamed feature in international waters. But the regulations also ask other countries to recognise a name applied by a sovereignty state within its territorial sea.
“Naming the undersea features ... reflects the potential rights China has to these features,” a maritime expert Yang Suihua was quoted by Xinhua as saying.
Additional reporting by Liu Zhen