Taiwan sends Coast Guard and military vessels to enforce its right to fish in what Japan claims as its EEZ.
As if Asia didn’t have enough maritime disputes, add one more to the list. Taiwan and Japan are in the midst of a diplomatic spat over the Okinotori Islands – or perhaps more properly the Okinotori atoll. In fact, the question of whether or not Okinotori is an island or simply a rock is central to the current tensions.
Okinotori is an uninhabited reef that is reportedly only above water at high tide – and then only thanks to concrete and steel reinforcements installed by Japan. According to Foreign Policy, the parts of the atoll that are above the water at high tide are “hardly larger than a pair of king size beds.” Yet Japan considers Okinotori, which is located roughly halfway between Taiwan and Guam, to be a proper island. Taiwan – along with China and South Korea – do not.
This is more than mere semantics; an island is entitled to a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone under international law, while a rock is not. The EEZ around Okinotori would amount to over 400,000 square kilometers – “an area larger than the entire landmass of Japan,” as the Wall Street Journal pointed out in 2005.
China first challenged Japan’s description of Okinotori as an island in 2004, arguing that it is merely a rock and thus not entitled to an EEZ. In return, Japan doubled-down by constructing a heliport and installing radar on the feature. Shintaro Ishihara, then the mayor of Tokyo, even traveled to Okinotori for a flag-raising photo-op in 2005. Japan also began considering building a lighthouse or even a port on the feature to strengthen its claim that Okinotori is more than a rock.