Japan protests Chinese survey ship operating near Okinotorishima atoll, a small but vital piece in Tokyo’s maritime territory claims


The protest may fall on deaf ears, however, as Beijing has in the past carried out similar surveys and insisted Okinotorishima is merely a few rocks that would not be above the waves without reinforcement. Beijing has maintained Okinotorishima is not able to sustain human life and cannot be recognised as an island. And if it is not an island, Tokyo cannot lay claim to the surrounding 400,000 sq km of the Pacific as part of its EEZ.

The Chinese vessel was seen in the EEZ around the island on December 18, government officials said. Under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, conducting a maritime survey in another nation’s EEZ requires the agreement of that country in advance and Tokyo has said no permission was granted.

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“The vessel was carrying out marine scientific research activities in the waters near Okinawa,” said China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Hao at his regular press conference on January 2.

He emphasised that China is party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and carries out its marine scientific research activities in accordance with the convention.

Lu added that under the UNCLOS definitions, Okinawa Reef does not constitute an island, so the ship was not in any exclusive economic zone.

“The Japanese side arbitrarily called it an island … which the Chinese side never recognised,” he said.

A plate triangulation marker on Okinotori island. Photo: Reuters

“China very much wants to know what is in that area, whether it’s natural resources like oil and gas or fish – but Japan is more worried about the vast deposits of methane hydrates that they have located in this area,” said Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Japan’s Daito Bunka University.

Methane hydrate is a solid compound containing high levels of methane trapped in a crystal structure. Japan has sought to prevent other countries exploiting the resource.

According to Mulloy, the ship may also have had a military mission: China is eager to locate deep water passages that will enable its growing fleet of submarines to exit relatively shallow coastal waters between mainland China and the Philippines, Taiwan, the Okinawa Islands and mainland Japan.

“They are also measuring the depth of the ocean and looking for specific features, including channels for submarines,” he said. “They will also try to plot areas of the seabed that have a high ferrous content as it is more difficult to detect and track submarines against a ferrous background.”

The expedition is also likely to have had a political component, Mulloy said.