China blasted Japan for a “selfish” claim over an area of the Pacific Ocean larger than France, reigniting a long-standing territorial fight between Asia’s two largest economies.
Japan has long claimed Okinotori, which is about halfway between Taiwan and Guam, as its southernmost island. China says it is merely a reef, and does not entitle Japan to benefits such as a 200 nautical-mile (370.4km) radius exclusive economic zone that would apply to an island under international law.
“Japan, in pursuit of selfish interest, has illegally staked claim to nearly 700,000 square kilometers of jurisdictional waters based on the tiny reef,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) said on Tuesday, adding that this “undermines the overall interests of the international community.”
The uninhabited territory consists of low-lying rocks that have been augmented with concrete by Japan, in a precursor to similar, but more ambitious projects undertaken by China in the South China Sea.
Recognition of Japan’s claims could potentially constrain China’s naval activities in the area. Beijing has stepped up surveys of surrounding waters and its academics recently published a number of reports disputing Japan’s analysis, the Sankei Shimbun reported.
According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own bring no entitlement to an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. Artificial islands do not have a territorial sea of their own under the law.
An international tribunal ruled in 2016 that China’s own efforts to assert control over the South China Sea, partly through territorial claims stemming from artificial islands, exceeded its legal rights under the UNCLOS. China refused to accept the ruling on procedural grounds.
In response to questions about China’s scientific reports on Okinotori, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno on Monday said that the country’s 2008 application to the UNCLOS Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf was based on plentiful scientific evidence.
South Korea also disputes Japan’s claims.
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