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A Japanese Claim That Does Not Hold Water

Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport claimed on Monday that they have set a marker on Okinotori, an uninhabited reef 1,740 kilometers southwest of Tokyo.  

To mark Okinotori the southernmost point of Japan, as on the marker, simply blurs the concept between island and reef.


Article 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLS) stipulates an island is a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide. Rocks that cannot sustain human habitation or economic life shall not be considered to have an economic zone or continental shelf. Continental shelf is the part of a continent submerged in relatively shallow sea.


The two sentences are written in the UN convention and they form a complete concept.


Obviously, Okinotori, two uninhabited rocky outcrops sitting barely two feet above the Pacific at high tide, does not comply with these guidelines.


However, for years Japan has called Okinotori an island. On that basis, it claims not only sovereignty but also exclusive economic control of waters extending for 230 miles, or 200 nautical miles, in every direction. That would be 160,000 square miles of ocean -- an area larger than the entire landmass of Japan.


The fact is Okinotori is nothing more than specks of rock, and Japan's claim does not hold water.


As China and Japan have different understandings of the nature and scope of the water surrounding Okinotori, consultation is the only way to properly handle the issue.


That is why the Chinese side has always insisted historical disputes are shelved so as not to derail ties.


Nevertheless, Japan's unilateral action shows it thinks otherwise.


In May, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara visited Okinotori to claim the specks of rock an island and assert the waters around it were Japan's exclusive economic zone.


The Japanese government has agreed to install a radar on the island, ostensibly to monitor wave heights. The radar will also be capable of tracking vessels that enter its territorial waters. The construction of a lighthouse is also now being considered.


Such moves are legally unsound, and morally questionable.


It is a warning to all those in China who cherish high expectations of Japan becoming a good neighbor.


It would be good if those calculating Japanese politicians could finally appreciate the benefit of good neighborly ties with China.


We would also benefit from it.


But Japan's latest provocation over Okinotori reminds us that we have to ready ourselves for undesirable scenarios, no matter how unwilling we are.


(China Daily June 23, 2005)

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