Tokyo's latest attempt to upgrade the status of a Pacific atoll into an island has come in for flak, with China yesterday denouncing the move as a breach of international maritime law.
Japan's Kyodo news agency reported yesterday that Tokyo would allocate at least $7 million this year to build a port on what the Japanese call "Okinotori Island", in a bid to cement its right to explore resources surrounding the area.
China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu criticized the move yesterday, saying Japan should not be permitted to develop the atoll as an exclusive economic zone and exploit its marine resources.
"The construction of infrastructure will not change Okinotori Reef's legal position," Jiang said at a regular press briefing. She said Tokyo's move has violated international maritime law.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Okinotori - an uninhabited reef some 1,740 km south of Tokyo - does not have an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.
Yet, the atoll, now circled by concrete seawall to prevent it from further slipping under the waves, has been misused by Japan.
Tokyo has maintained that Okinotori is a bona-fide island that can be utilized to map its exclusive economic zone on the East China Sea.
The dispute over the status of the atoll began to simmer in 2004.
Beijing has argued that Okinotori can only be classified as a reef and not as an island. This means the ocean surrounding it is open to use by other nations and Japan has no right to prevent China from exploiting nearby resources.
To strengthen its claim, Japan focused on converting the Okinotori Reef into an "island" by artificially trying to make it habitable. It also mounted a $7-million coral transplant operation around the reef in 2008.
In September 2009, Japan sent an application to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf proposing to extend its South Pacific continental shelf. China opposed the petition and urged the Commission to properly handle the issue.
The Okinotori Reef issue is a unique territorial dispute in that it is not a case in which countries squabble over control of a territory, but for the right to exploit maritime resources and investigate the seabed.
Japan's recent attempts, such as building a port, developing the fishery sector and establishing an observatory point, are aimed at blurring Okinotori Reef's legal position, experts said yesterday.
"Even during a severe economic downturn such as this, the Japanese government has sunk a lot of money to further its maritime strategy, which has been its long-term aim," said Liu Jiangyong, professor of East Asian studies at the Beijing-based Tsinghua University.
The two neighbors have yet to reach an agreement over the status of the atoll.