Sun, Nov 20, 2005 - Page 3 News List

Small islet wields significant clout in Pacific waters

TERRITORIAL DISPUTE The government, caught between security interests and protecting fishing rights, is laying low in a dispute with Japan over Okinotorishima

By Chang Yun-ping and Rich Chang  /  STAFF REPORTERS

The islet of Okinotorishima lies halfway between Guam and Taiwan, roughly 1,600km from Taiwan and 1,700km south of Tokyo. Japan claims the island as part of its territory -- as well as an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending 200 nautical miles (370km) around it.

It recently became a point of contention for Taiwan's fishermen operating near the island, as they have been continuously expelled by Japanese ships for trespassing into Japan's EEZ. Taiwanese fishing boats from Ilan's Suao harbor have long been harassed by the Japanese coast guard. Earlier this month, a Suao fishboat was fined NT$1.2 million (US$35,700) for operating around the island.

Angered by the incident, local fishermen recently endorsed a petition to bring the case to both Japanese courts and the international court in Geneva. Some even vowed to blow up the coral reef island if the government takes no action on the issue.

The head of the Ilan fishermen's association, Lin Ri-cheng (林日成), said the EEZ claimed by Japan is about five times the size of Taiwan.

If the area were occupied by Japan, it would deal a deadly blow to Taiwanese fishermen's livelihoods, Lin said.

But the dispute surrounding Okinotorishima concerns more than fishing resources. It is important strategically.

The government, caught between national security interests and fishing rights, has been low-key in dealing with the territorial dispute with Japan.

A foreign ministry official in charge of Japanese affairs told the Taipei Times that the government is maintaining a "vague" position on the issue so as not to sour its good relations with Japan.

"We are adopting a vague strategy, which means we won't challenge Japan's claim of an EEZ around the island," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official said the dispute arose from differences over whether Okinotorishima constitutes an island. If it doesn't, Japan can at most claim an area of about 12-24 nautical miles (22km-45km) as belonging to it, the official said.

Japan's claim that Okinotorishima is an island is based on Article 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which states that "an island is a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide."

However, this definition is contested, in particular by China. China argues the island is merely a rock. Paragraph 3 of the same article of the UN convention states that "rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no EEZ or continental shelf."

Using this interpretation, China believes it is free to do research in the waters near the area.

Japanese analysts, however, believe that China is conducting underwater surveys to find a way to block the US fleet from Guam in the event of military conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

Japanese military experts have suggested that Taiwan support Japan's territorial claim on Okinotorishima, which would help Japan block China's underwater surveys.

"The step would be in Taiwan's own best interests in terms of security, and it could also strengthen US-Japan-Taiwan cooperation," the experts wrote in a paper discussed at the US-Japan-Taiwan Strategic Dialogue held by Taiwan Thinktank late last month.

Tomohito Shinoda, an associate professor at the International University of Japan, and one of the main proponents of the idea, suggested that Taiwan make the move to help it against China's navy.

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