China all at sea over Japan island row
Japan's Okinotori Island, which has a Tokyo postal address even though it lies roughly 1,770 kilometers south of the capital and it is actually a pair of tiny islets, has become a bone of contention for China.
Among other things, China refuses to grant it island status, and refers to it instead as an atoll, reef or simply a rock. By doing so, China hopes to throttle back Japan's plan to create an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) there. The dispute over Okinotori, which Japan calls Okinotorishima, persists because it involves strategic concerns and rights to undersea resources over an area that is roughly equivalent to the entire land mass of the four main Japanese islands.
At an undersea resource development conference hosted by Kyushu University last December that was attended by experts from China, Japan and South Korea and elsewhere, the cobalt-rich manganese crusts around Okinotori were highlighted. Although "rich natural resources" in the area are frequently mentioned as well by China, details are lacking.
At the East Asian Seas Congress in Manila last November, Japan's submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) in March 2009 was discussed. This document addressed seven regions between Japan and the Philippines comprising 740,000 square kilometers. Besides potential overlapping claims with the United States and the Republic of Palau - not involving Okinotori - Japan is confronted by both China and the Republic of Korea (South Korea), which filed complaints last year with the CLCS concerning Japan's actions on Okinotori.  When the Democratic Party of Japan-led government headed by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama came to power last year, it wasted no time in declaring that Japan is allocating US$7 million in 2010 to create a facility on Okinotori in a bid to firmly establish yet another foothold there. This may seem like a large sum, but it represents less than 3% of the total amount spent thus far by Japan to sustain this remote island. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated by the Japanese over the past two decades.
Japan now finds itself indebted to Vietnam, albeit indirectly. Vietnam is exposing curious contradictions that it has detected in China's case against Japan in this instance.
Vietnam, along with other Southeast Asian nations, has a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. Last year, the Vietnamese government submitted a national report on the limits of its continental shelf "which lie 200 nautical miles beyond the country's baselines in the northern part of the East Sea [Vietnam's name for the South China Sea]" to the CLCS. This took place in late August.
Together, Vietnam and Malaysia also presented another joint report to the CLCS on the continental shelves of both countries, "which extend out over 200 nautical miles from their baselines in the southern part of the East Sea".
The Vietnamese national report and the Vietnam-Malaysia joint report preceded the approval by the Japanese Diet (parliament) of a law in 2010 that authorizes the central government - not local government - to manage and control both Okinotori and the even more remote Minamitori Island, southeast of Tokyo - and about 290 kilometers more distant than Okinotori.
While China dismisses all of these actions by Japan as illegal, it is anxiously looking over its shoulder at the emboldened Vietnamese.
"The construction of infrastructure will not change Okinotori Reef's legal position," said China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu at a press briefing in January, adding that this violates international maritime law. 
Japan claimed Okinotori, also known as Douglas Reef or Parece Vela, in 1931 as part of Ogasawara village in the prefecture of Tokyo, and officially named it Okinotorishima. "The Japanese claim to an EEZ and continental shelf around Okinotorishima is based on several factors," said Associate Professor Peter Dutton of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College. "First, Japanese scholars claim that Okinotorishima is an island that qualifies under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for an EEZ and continental shelf in that it sustains economic activity, even though it is apparently not much more than 10 square meters in size at high tide.
"This argument has only the most tenuous support under the current state of international law. The Japanese seem to recognize this fact and have set out a second legal basis, namely that Japan has longstanding historic interests in Okinotorishima, the adjacent waters, and the resources of the surrounding seabed. In Japan's view, these interests have consolidated over time into legally protected rights."
China points to Article 121 of UNCLOS, which defines an island as "a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide". China designates it as a rock under the same article - rocks cannot sustain human habitation or economic life - because a rock by itself cannot be used to claim either an EEZ or by extension a continental shelf submerged in a relatively shallow sea.
By acting as if it has legal standing under UNCLOS, China has suddenly opened the door for Vietnam, and Vietnam has seized the opportunity.
The strategic importance of Okinotori cannot go unnoticed as it sits halfway on a line between the huge US military base on the island of Guam and Taiwan. While divergent Chinese and Japanese strategic interests are driving this dispute, China's need to navigate freely is increasing.
"China has staked legal positions that have de-legitimized foreign military operations in a coastal country's EEZ. China's objections to US military activities in its EEZ are based on these legal perspectives," said Dutton. "On the other hand, as China's naval power has grown over the last couple of decades, China's strategy for controlling the outcome of events throughout East Asia in times of crisis has also evolved. During times of crisis, China now has aspirations of challenging outside naval powers for control of the waters between the first and second island chain." (The first island chain enompases the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea. The second encompasses the Japan Sea, the Philippines Sea and the Indonesia Sea.)
This puts China in an awkward position to say the least.
"To be consistent with its demand that the US cease performing military operations in and above China's EEZ, China would not be able to undertake military operations in the waters of Japan's EEZ surrounding Okinotori. As such, to preserve their own security interests, China refuses to recognize Japan's claim," said Dutton.
Prior to Vietnam's move, the chief objective here for Japan had been to politely ignore China's protests and to ensure that, above all else, Okinotori should not somehow sink beneath the sea.
"There is no change in the nature of the dispute. Japan has been planting coral on Okinotori to secure its status as an 'island', while China keeps criticizing [and asserting that] it is a 'rock', so as not to allow Japan's EEZ," said Yukie Yoshikawa, senior research fellow at the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies in Washington, DC.
Planting coral there is just one of the latest Japanese measures, which have included pouring tons of concrete, at a cost of $280 million, to encase both of the islets, as well as covering them with a titanium net which cost another $50 million. n 2005, Japan mounted a large address plaque there so that everyone would immediately know on arrival that they had reached "1 Okinotori Island, Ogasawara Village, Tokyo." Soon after this was put in place, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara was photographed kissing the plaque and waving the Japanese flag over it. He kept his life jacket on at the same time. 
As China attempts to convince the rest of Asia that what Japan is now undertaking actually harms its neighbors, Vietnam shakes its head.
"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," said Wang Hanling, an expert in maritime affairs and international law at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "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."
In its dealings with Japan, China has even raised the issue of fairness at times, a tactic which must amuse Hanoi.
"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 researcher at 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." 
Why China is beginning to realize that the stance it has adopted here might backfire is becoming increasingly apparent. Vietnam still claims sovereignty over the Paracel Islands - China's Xisha Islands - in the South China Sea, while the Spratlys, or Nansha Islands as China calls, them are claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.
In early 2009, or perhaps earlier, Vietnam started picking apart the "reefs and islands" argument raised by China supposedly under UNCLOS rules in its case against Japan, and said in effect, "Wait a minute, China, you are arguing the exact opposite regarding our claims in the East Sea."
One minute, argues Vietnam, China asserts that Okinotori cannot have an exclusive economic zone or determine the limits of a continental shelf because it is an atoll, reef or rock and does not have an independent economic life, and the next minute China asserts that so-called "islands" in the East Sea all have independent economic life so they can support a claim to exclusive economic zones and continental shelves of 200 nautical miles covering 80% of the East Sea.
None of this rings true, or not to the extent that it allows China to proceed down the path it is taking. Ownership of the islands in the East Sea is really not central to the outcome because Vietnam contends that "no country can claim up to 80% of the East Sea on the basis of a claim to ownership of these islands". 
In other words, look closely and one can detect dozens of little "Okinotoris" dotting the South China Sea. China is just hoping that the rest of the world - at least the rest of the world which has been following China's attempt to derail Japan - will overlook them.
"It seems as though Vietnam is signaling that it would be satisfied with sovereignty over the islands and to leave most of the South China Sea as high seas. The implication of Vietnam's perspective, were Vietnam to consolidate its claims at China's expense, is that most of the South China Sea would remain open for all states to fish and extract seabed resources," said Dutton. "That is not the effect of China's claims over the South China Sea."
At the same time, if China is attempting to counter this clever tactic by Vietnam, it is not doing a very effective job. In fact, China appears to be turning a blind eye to Vietnam here.
"This position presents China with an additional dilemma that it has not yet publicly begun to reconcile," said Dutton.
Beijing's decision to build a luxury resort in the Paracels in the South China Sea has not helped the situation.
"[Vietnam] demanded in early January 2010 that China abandon the project, which [it] said causes tension and further complicates the situation," said Yoshikawa.
Still, when Chen Bingde, chief of the general staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army and a member of the Central Military Commission, met with Nguyen Chi Vinh, Vietnam's deputy defense minister, in Beijing in early March, there was no mention of this dispute, not publicly anyway.
China has been diligent in other maritime matters despite any protests elsewhere. Just last month, for example, China finished work on the last of 13 permanent facilities on islands and reefs in the East China Sea as part of another intensive EEZ extension and development process. A new lighthouse at Waikejiao is the latest addition.
"Because Japan and China tend to look at foreign policy in a more relationship-oriented manner - rather than Washington's event-driven policies - if both countries are on good terms, which you can say for now, the Okinotori Island issue will be taken care of so that it does not dampen the relationship," said Yoshikawa.
Japan is not likely to suffer any consequences as it proceeds with its plans on Okinotori.
"I do not see that happening for the foreseeable future as this is a peripheral issue which is more likely to be affected by overall Sino-Japanese relations," said Yoshikawa.
Nevertheless, China has a very good reason for persisting in its efforts here, regardless if it annoys Japan or not.
"There is not much that China can do about Japan's claim, given China's own claims in the South China Sea," said Dutton. "However, China will probably continue to diplomatically object to Japan's claim in order to preserve Chinese freedom of military action in the waters surrounding Okinotori."