Okinotori: An odd place for a maritime dispute



    Tension with Japan over the Okinotori atoll will keep maritime issues at the top of Taiwan’s agenda under the incoming Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, led by President-elect Tsai Ing-wen.

    Taiwan’s weak relationship with Japan will constrain its ability to make broad and provocative policy shifts concerning China.

    For its part, China will carefully observe how the new Taiwanese government manages the Okinotori issue to discern how Taipei’s policies toward Japan will develop.

    A great deal of international attention has been focused on China’s attempts to force tiny South China Sea outcroppings to fit the formal UN definition of an island. But few have taken notice of the activities of Japan—a key US ally and potential counterweight to China—at the Okinotori atoll, where Tokyo is making a similarly controversial claim to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ). But this maritime dispute carries a great deal of significance. Asia’s geopolitics is defined by water and the status of a particular island, reef or rock can play a crucial role national strategy—and international conflict.

    Exclusive economic zone (EEZ)
    The 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea grants nations an exclusive economic zone of up to 200 nautical miles from the coast and around some islands, carrying rights to marine resources. This makes the official status of tiny rocks, reefs and islands essential.

    While Okinotori’s remoteness from the Asian continent makes the dispute less contentious than those over the Spratly and Senkaku islands, many of the problems are familiar. In this case, however, the players are switched. Just as China has piled up sediment to strengthen its claim to the Spratly Islands, Japan has built concrete platforms at considerable expense to bolster its own claim that the Okinotori atoll legally possesses a 200-nautical mile EEZ. Here, China and Taiwan, generally at odds with each another, both see Japan’s claim as one that challenges their economic and strategic interests. Both governments therefore accuse Japan of violating the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by asserting excessive maritime rights from mainly artificial features.

    Despite its small size, Okinotori looms large for Asian politicians and policymakers. On April 25, the Japanese coast guard seized a Taiwanese fishing boat 150 nautical miles off of Okinotori, within the atoll’s claimed EEZ. Taiwan responded by dispatching two patrol ships to the area, followed by a Lafayette-class frigate. And while a confrontation between Tokyo and Taipei is unlikely to escalate, the complicated dynamics of Okinotori almost certainly will.

    Okinotori: A history
    The atoll, a ring-shaped reef and chain of rocks made of coral, is an odd location for a maritime dispute. It is Japan’s southernmost possession—appropriately named “Remote Bird Island” in Japanese—lying 1,000 nautical miles to the south of Tokyo and 860 nautical miles from Taiwan’s southernmost point, Eluanbi. There were five rock outcroppings above the water of the atoll’s lagoon when Japan claimed Okinotori in the 1920s, but erosion has erased all but two, leaving a current total area of less than 10 square meters (about 33 square feet).

    Because the atoll had neither habitable land nor notable resources, Japan showed little interest in developing it beyond a short-lived plan to construct a seaplane base there in the late 1930s. This base was left unfinished because of the outbreak of World War II. After the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea in 1973 set the modern standard for EEZs at 200 nautical miles, Japan sought EEZs that would give it the exclusive (and lucrative) right to exploit subsea resources. Thus Japan alleged that the rock outcroppings in the Okinotori atoll were islands entitled to an EEZ amounting to 400,000 square kilometers—an area larger than the entire landmass of Japan.

    Resource-poor Japan sees that Okinotori has crucial economic and strategic value if it is deemed an EEZ, but this will depend on whether the bodies can be considered islands. Since 1987, Japan has invested over $600 million to protect the atoll from further erosion, encasing its remaining rock outcroppings in 82 feet of concrete. Slits are cut into the barriers to allow seawater through to meet the technical definition of an island set by international law: “naturally formed area[s]of land, surrounded by water, which [are]above water at high tide.” In addition, the smaller of the two islands is covered with a net of titanium. While $600 million may seem excessive, Tokyo considers the potential payoff well worth it.

    But therein lies a legal problem. There is no dispute over the sovereignty of the atoll, which Taiwan and China both accept as belonging to Japan. Rather, the disagreement concerns the definition of its features and the maritime rights these features imply. Taiwan and China both assert that under UNCLOS, Japan’s possessions in Okinotori are merely rocks, unable to “sustain human habitation or economic activity on their own” and therefore entitled to only 12-nautical-mile territorial waters—beyond which commercial and military activities from other countries would be fair game, not subject to regulation by Japan.

    Taiwan’s main concern is commercial. More than 100 Taiwanese fishing boats venture near the atoll in search of undepleted fish stocks on an annual basis, according to Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency. China’s interest is more strategic. As Japan grows active in the South China Sea and denounces China for conducting land reclamation and asserting excessive maritime rights, China finds it useful to highlight Japanese hypocrisy to undermine its criticisms of Chinese policy. Okinotori is also roughly midway between Guam, a major staging point for US forces, and the East China Sea, a crucial maritime pathway for Chinese war planners studying Taiwan and Japan, both US allies. China desires the freedom to survey and map the seabed in the waters around Okinotori to develop a better understanding of likely US movements in the event of conflict.

    Enter Taiwan’s new govt
    Okinotori has often been a point of contention between Japan, China and Taiwan, unpredictably inflamed by commercial fishing. However, current circumstances will exacerbate Taiwan’s latest quarrel with Japan. First, the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration is soon expected to rule on a maritime suit that the Philippines brought against China that sought to invalidate the maritime rights China claims from eight features in the South China Sea. Japan has denounced Chinese maritime claims and supplied the Philippines with maritime surveillance equipment, including patrol boats and aircraft. In response, Chinese state media seized the opportunity afforded by Japan and Taiwan’s Okinotori dispute to support Taiwan in criticizing Japan’s EEZ claims as inconsistent with UNCLOS.

    Second, the altercation comes as Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, led by President-elect Tsai Ing-wen, prepares to take power May 20 from a Nationalist Party administration that has been somewhat friendlier toward China. China distrusts the traditionally pro-independence position of the DPP and appears to be pressuring Taiwan’s incoming government right away—breaking an eight-year diplomatic truce by resuming ties with Gambia and running a campaign to secure the extradition of Taiwanese telecommunications fraud suspects to China from Kenya and Malaysia. The moves are meant to demonstrate to Taiwan that China has the power to disrupt its relations with other countries if a DPP-led Taipei is uncooperative with its policies, particularly in the South China Sea.

    The DPP has had friendlier ties with Japan: Cordial relations with the country help offset the effects of Chinese attempts to isolate Taiwan, which will likely be more vigorous with a DPP administration in power. The DPP has also been relatively quiet on Taiwan’s involvement in maritime disputes, unlike the Nationalist Party, which places great importance in maintaining Taiwan’s expansive claims to the South China Sea. Some DPP members have even been known to advocate for Taiwan dropping its claims altogether to bring the country more in line with international legal standards.

    Despite the DPP’s relative disinterest in maritime disputes, the outgoing administration still has a vote in setting the policy agenda for the new president. Consequently, maritime issues have been elevated to near the top of the list. In late January, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou visited Taiping Island/Itu Aba, Taiwan’s South China Sea possession, drawing criticism from other South China Sea claimants. Then in March, in response to news that a ruling on the Philippines v. China case would soon be released, Taiwan flew several foreign journalists to Taiping Island/Itu Aba to showcase its ability to sustain life.

    The unplanned standoff with Japan at Okinotori, in which Taiwan and China are implicitly allied, will hamper the DPP’s ability to undertake bold new policy directions in the short term. The naval deployment in response to Japan’s seizure of the Taiwanese fishing boat will last until at least the end of May, ensuring that Taipei and Tokyo will be at odds as the new administration takes office. Though DPP politicians have expressed greater willingness to negotiate with Japan, relations between the countries will start on a relatively weak note, immediately restricting Tsai’s ability to behave provocatively against China. She will probably be dissuaded from reversing Ma administration agreements as well, such as the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and the controversial 2013 Cross Straits Services Trade Agreement designed to tie Taiwan’s economy more closely with that of China’s. Meanwhile, Beijing—always concerned with improving relations between Japan and the states on its periphery, particularly Taiwan—will keep a close eye on Tsai’s efforts to manage the dispute.



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