Japan 'regrowing' tiny island in territorial challenge to China

The tensions in the disputed Spratly isles continue as some 50 protesters landed on Thitu island, drawing anger from China. The group posted photos and said the action was an act of defiance against China.
The tensions in the disputed Spratly isles continue as some 50 protesters landed on Thitu island, drawing anger from China. The group posted photos and said the action was an act of defiance against China.PHOTO: FACEBOOK/KALAYAAN ATIN ITO

KUMEJIMA (Okinawa) • Japan is growing an island in a bathtub as part of a struggle with China for control of Asia's oceans, reported the Financial Times.

The island is called Okinotorishima, or "distant bird island"; a remote, storm-wracked coral atoll 1,700km south-west of Tokyo in the Philippine Sea, where two small outcrops protrude at high tide, FT said.

Japan regards the atoll as its southernmost point; China says it is merely a rock and hence not entitled to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Now Okinotorishima is dying and threatening Japan's claim. Climate change is raising the sea level and killing the coral that grew on top and kept the atoll's head above water. Typhoons bite at what remains.

Japan is therefore on a desperate quest to regrow the reef, FT said in a report last weekend. The results will decide the fate of a strategic redoubt, with legal repercussions in the South China Sea, it said.

Japanese authorities have brought coral from Okinotorishima to the Deep Seawater Research Institute on the island of Kumejima and harvested eggs.

They will grow the baby corals in a bathtub in a greenhouse at the facility for a year, then transplant them back to the atoll.

"We've made progress in expanding the area of coral planted, but the death rate of the transplanted coral is high, so we can't yet say the amount of coral on the island is increasing," emeritus professor Makoto Omori at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology was quoted by FT as saying.

Citing Mr Hideaki Kaneda, a retired vice-admiral now at the Okazaki Institute, the report pointed out three ways in which the tiny reef matters to Japan's security.

First, it would be a crucial theatre "for the Chinese military to deny access to reinforcements coming from the east".

Second, Okinotorishima sits on the route Chinese nuclear submarines would take out into the Pacific, towards patrolling positions against the US.

Third, it lies close to the sea lanes on which raw materials flow to Japan from northern and western Australian ports.

That makes a 200-mile exclusive economic zone around Okinotorishima, and thus greater control of those waters, a strategic asset beyond even the natural resources that might lie beneath the surface.

Only an island can generate an exclusive economic zone, however, not a rock - which is the other reason Japan is trying to regrow the coral.

Article 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea defines an island as a "naturally formed area of land" which is "above water at high tide". It excludes "rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own".

The new islands China has reclaimed in the South China Sea to stake its territorial claim against those of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan are artificial. If Japan revives the coral on Okinotorishima, however, it can argue the feature is "naturally formed".

This way, Japan hopes to claim Okinotorishima as an island with its own EEZ, while still opposing China's reclamation in the South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year

Meanwhile yesterday, China expressed anger that 47 Filipino protesters had landed on a Philippine-held island in the South China Sea to stake their country's sovereignty claim, Reuters reported.

The protesters, most of them students, reached Thitu island in the Spratly archipelago on Saturday in a stand against what they say is Beijing's creeping invasion of the Philippine exclusive economic zone.

China was "strongly dissatisfied" by what the Filipinos had done, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang was quoted by Reuters as saying yesterday, reiterating that China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly islands.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2015, with the headline 'Japan 'regrowing' tiny island in territorial challenge to China'. Print Edition | Subscribe