PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT
Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
CHINA, JAPAN, TUSSLE OVER TINY ROCK IN PACIFIC
By Julian Ryall
But military experts here believe China’s newfound belligerence on the matter is rooted in military rather than economic considerations.
The war of words has heated up in recent weeks, after the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which administers the island from 1,080 miles to the north, announced that it is allocating US$7 million this year to improve infrastructure on Okinotorishima, including the construction of port facilities. As well as the protective sea wall, a lighthouse and navigational facilities for ships have already been installed on the site, which is also known as Douglas Reef, while Japanese marine biologists are attempting an ambitious plan to cultivate coral in the surrounding waters to increase the size of the island.
The Chinese, however, are not impressed. Shortly after Tokyo announced its expansion plans, China’s Foreign Ministry denounced the proposals as a breach of international maritime law.
"The construction of infrastructure will not change Okinotori Reef’s legal position," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters in Beijing on Jan. 7.
According to China, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea makes it clear that Okinotorishima is merely a reef that cannot be used by Tokyo to extend its continental shelf or EEZ a further 200 nautical miles. This would mean that other nations are free to access and utilize the waters and natural resources beneath the seabed around the outcropping.
Japan has rebutted China’s claims, with Foreign Press Secretary Kazuo Kodama telling reporters the following day that, "Since July 1931 and up until now, we have effectively controlled Okinotori Island as an island and have set up an exclusive economic zone in the surrounding seas. We believe that such rights and the island’s status have already been established."
But military experts here detect another motive for China ratcheting up the pressure on the issue - which had rarely been raised prior to 2004 - and point to similar moves by China off its southern coast. The day before commenting on the Okinotorishima issue, Beijing declared "indisputable sovereignty" over an archipelago of tiny islands in the South China Sea that it disputes with Vietnam. Beijing occupied some of the islands after a brief naval battle with Vietnamese troops in 1974 and in early January this year announced plans to develop tourism in the region.
"The reason that China is giving in public for these moves is that it wishes to maximize its access to natural resources and fishing in the area," said Masafumi Iida, a China expert at Japan’s National Institute of Defense Studies. "And that may be one factor - but of far more importance is China’s developing naval strategy for the Pacific Ocean."
That, in turn, has evolved out of the incident involving the United States Navy’s ocean surveillance ship Impeccable, which was detected in March 2009 close to the island of Hainan, the site of a secret new base for China’s nuclear submarine fleet. The incident prompted Beijing to declare that vessels operated by the U.S. Navy could not operate within China’s EEZ without express advance permission - a situation that it is trying to avoid for its own vessels close to Okinotorishima.
"The island’s location between Guam and Taiwan makes it extremely strategically important," said Iida. "The Chinese are stepping up its access denial capabilities in this part of the Pacific, an attempt to keep the U.S. Navy further away from Taiwan and making it more difficult for U.S warships to enter the East China Sea."
To further enhance its military influence in the region - and take advantage of Washington’s military being focused on operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East and spread relatively thinly in other theaters - Beijing is embarking on a rapid expansion of its own military capabilities, particular in its quest for a blue-water navy.
China says its military spending rose from US$52 billion in 2007 to US$61 billion in 2008, although analysts suspect those are both conservative figures, but fears have been raised about Beijing’s power-projection capabilities after it laid down the keels for two 60,000-ton aircraft carriers at a shipyard in Shanghai and has announced plans for two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers within a decade.
And it is making little secret of its longer-term ambitions; Beijing’s 2009 defense white paper emphasized a range of "new missions" to justify its outlays and, claiming that as its strategic interests have expanded globally, all three branches of its military are seeking higher budgets to radically improve their capabilities, including in "distant waters."
"The Chinese navy has set two lines over the oceans for its perimeters," said Iida. "The first one runs from Japan through Taiwan and to the Philippines, but their latest line is much further from the Chinese coast. It runs south from Japan through the Ogasawara islands to Guam and on to the Philippines. "China is strengthening its presence in that area now and Okinotorishima is right in the middle of it.
Marianas Business Journal
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