China’s Okinotori Position Reveals an UNCLOS Double Standard


China’s position on a remote Japan-held feature reveals an important inconsistency in its approach to international law.

One of Asia’s more remote maritime territorial disputes–the dispute over the status of the Okinotori Islands (Okinotorishima)–is back in the news. As my colleague Shannon Tiezzi discussed earlier this week, a recent spat over fishing rights between Taiwan and Japan has given the dispute newfound relevance. The dispute over Okinotori is more clear cut than many of the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. Notably, its ownership isn’t under dispute. What three states–China, South Korea, and Taiwan–do dispute is the status of the features that comprise Okinotori.

I won’t go into the specifics of just what is and isn’t at stake in the Okinotori dispute (again, Shannon has a helpful run down in her earlier article), but a reaction to the dispute this week from China’s foreign ministry caught my eye. Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, outlined China’s opposition to Japan considering Okinotori an island. Notably, she justified China’s position by citing the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS):

Okinotori is an isolated rock in the West Pacific far away from the homeland of Japan. As prescribed in the UNCLOS, rocks like Okinotori which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone nor continental shelf. In April, 2012, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf gave its recommendations in regard to the submission made by Japan on the limits of its outer continental shelf, not recognizing Japan’s claim of an outer continental shelf based on Okinotori. Japan has violated the UNCLOS by categorizing Okinotori as “island” for the purpose of claiming for EEZ and continental shelf based on that. China does not recognize the illegal assertion by Japan.