China continues to clarify its baselines, but disputes remain
Japan's latest move to transform a group of rocks into an "island" so as to claim an expanded exclusive economic zone (EEZ) endangers the interests of its neighbors. It not only deprives others from due economic interests but also threatens their national security, Chinese experts said.
Japan's Congress on Tuesday approved a law that would give the central government, rather than local entities, the authority to manage and control specific remote, uninhabited "islets" in an effort to expand its EEZ.
The first two candidates are the remote Pacific outcroppings of Okinotori, an atoll of coral reefs 1,700 km south of Tokyo, and Minamitori, 2,000 km southeast of Tokyo.
If successful, Japan may claim an EEZ of about 400,000 sq km, almost the same as Japan's land territory, and continental shelf of about 740,000 sq km around the uninhabited Okinotori atoll as long as it can prove it to be an "island".
"The Okinotori atoll is only about 10 sq m above the sea at the flood-tide and is nothing but a rock according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in Beijing last month.
According to UNCLOS Article 121: "Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf."
"If Japan's efforts succeed, other countries will not be allowed to fish or share other rich natural resources in a region that is currently regarded as international high seas," Wang Hanling, an expert in maritime affairs and international law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told China Daily.
"Besides, for some neighbors such as China and the Republic of Korea, the fleets' freedom of navigation along some key routes in the area will also be hampered. That will pose risks to their national security," Wang said.
"Japan's claim over Okinotori, which lies between Taiwan and Guam, is in a strategically important position for Japan's benefit," said Jin Yongming, a fellow researcher from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. "But the move has harmed other countries' navigation interests and marine survey in the sea waters around Okinotori, and is contrary to the principle of fairness."
Japan has been trying to make the atoll a de facto island through a series of moves over the years.
Since 1987, Japan has spent some $300 million in building a concrete wall around the Okinotori atoll, and has already completed a solar-powered lighthouse.
Japan has also allocated part of its fiscal 2010 draft budget for infrastructure on Okinotori atoll to keep it from submerging into the sea.
"Japan's actions and claims are obviously untenable in legal terms and other countries have also raised their concerns," Ma said. "The construction of facilities, however, will not change its legal status."
Aside from Beijing, Seoul has also complained to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf about Japan's effort to create an artificial island to meet the international laws. So far there is no deadline for the commission to give a conclusion to end the dispute.
In another development, China announced recently that it has built a series of stone tablets and lighthouses on islands and reefs off its coast in East China Sea, signifying the completion of permanent markers of all the baseline points in the oil-rich area.
The move is seen as Beijing's latest efforts to clarify its territorial waters' baseline in East China Sea, so that the country can legally extend the exclusive economic zones under international protocols.
The latest permanent structure built to mark the country's East China Sea territorial baseline is on Waikejiao, a small sand island off the coast of Jiangsu province.
Zou Xingguo, political commissar of the Chinese navy's East Sea Fleet survey team, told reporters that the construction of permanent markers and data collection at the baseline points "are aimed at clarifying China's maritime sovereignty and provide substantial legal basis for China's exploitation and utilization of maritime sources."
China has adopted a straight baseline system in its maritime boundary delineation practice, which means joining specified or discrete points on the low-water line. The straight line drawn between the selected points should be the starting point for determining its territorial waters.
In 1996, the government announced some baseline points for the continent, territorial sea and Xisha Islands.
The country also joined the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea the same year and claimed a 12 nautical-mile wide territorial sea adjacent to the mainland, Taiwan and other major islands.
Gao Hong, an expert on Japan studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the construction of permanent markers of the baseline points is the necessary preparation for China to conduct dialogues with neighboring countries for solving territory disputes.
Xinhua citing the National Land and Sea Defense Commission as the source said that China has settled land boundary disputes with 12 neighboring countries through negotiation, accounting for about 90 percent of its total borderline.
Yet disputes over territorial waters with neighboring nations are still outstanding.