A local government in south-west Japan has announced it will apply to Tokyo to upgrade the status of three uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea to islands in order to enlarge and protect the nation’s exclusive economic zone.
Reclassifying the outcrops as islands is likely to be a further bone of contention in an area where China, South Korea and Japan are already making competing claims to airspace and the areas of the ocean that they cover.
The local authority in the town of Goto, a community on the island of Fukue that earns a living primarily from fishing, intends to change the name of Kita Iwa - meaning North Rock - to Kita Kojima, which is translated as North Small Island.
Similarly, Middle Rock will become Middle Island and South Rock will be known as South Small Island.
“The town council is going to apply to the national government next month to change the names,” Minoru Kubo, an official in the mayor’s office told The South China Morning Post. “As soon as the government has given approval, we will change the names, although we do not know how long that will take.”
The three outcrops are approximately 60 km south-west of Fukue Island and stand as much as 16 metres above the surface of the ocean. In total, the three rocks have a total surface area of less than 190 square metres.
“At the moment, because they are identified as rocks, the islands cannot by law be used to mark Japan’s EEZ,” Kubo said. “But as soon as they are listed as islands, we can use them for that purpose.
“There is very good fishing in that area and other countries’ fishing boats are coming to operate there,” he added. “We want to keep our citizens safe and protect their livelihoods.
“We can do that by making it clear this is Japan’s EEZ,” he added.
There is no dispute over the sovereignty of the rocks, although it is no coincidence that the local government has acted just days after China unilaterally announced a new air defence identification zone over a vast swathe of the East China Sea.
South Korea is also reportedly expanding its own air defence zone in the contested area and the decision by the town of Goto has not been welcomed in Korea. The government has made no comment on the issue as yet, but the Chosun Ilbo newspaper dismissed the town’s application.
“Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, islands can serve as base points to determine the limit of EEZs, but ‘rocks which could not sustain human habitation or economic life of their own would have no economic zone.’
“This makes it unlikely that the Japanese plan has much hope of success, but perhaps the move is part of a long stealth game,” the newspaper added.