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Tokyo's bid for new economic zone dismissed

Publication Date : 17-05-2012


Tokyo's bid to upgrade the status of a Pacific atoll into an island, and claim an outer continental shelf with an exclusive economic zone, was dismissed by an international body.

China welcomed the decision as "fair and reasonable".

"Japan's claim of an outer continental shelf based on Okinotori Atoll was not acknowledged by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, said on Wednesday, quoting information released by the commission.

The dismissal prevents Japan claiming the Okinotori Atoll as an island. An "island" designation allows a state to proclaim a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone around it and sole rights to resources within the zone.

The atoll is a group of rocks, some 1,700 kilometres south of Tokyo. Japan has spent large sums of money for more than two decades on buttressing it to prevent it from disappearing into the sea.

Japanese officials said in April that the commission agreed with Japan that the sea basin north of the atoll was part of its continental shelf. This, they said, classified Okinotori as an island and territorial "base point".

Hong said that Japan submitted a request to the commission covering some 740,000 square kilometres of what it called its continental shelf. But the commission recognised only 310,000 sq km.

Crucially, the area where the atoll is based was not recognised, Hong said.

"Japan's allegation that Okinotori Atoll has been adopted by the commission as an 'island' is absolutely baseless," Hong said.

The Japanese Diet approved a law in 2010 that gives the government the authority to manage and control specific, remote, uninhabited "islets" to expand the exclusive economic zone. Okinotori was among the leading candidates.

If successful, Japan could claim a zone of about 400,000 sq km, almost the size of its land territory and the continental shelf would spread 740,000 sq km around Okinotori.

Japan's rash claim in April, before the commission had actually made its final decision, was misleading, Liu Nanlai, an international law expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.

Okinotori is strategically vital, said Liang Fang, a professor at the Strategic Research Institute at the National Defence University of the People's Liberation Army.

"Besides hampering freedom of navigation, a possible military base on the atoll would contain China's normal naval activities," she said.

On top of this, other countries would not be allowed to fish or share rich natural resources in an exclusive economic zone that is clearly part of international waters, Li Jiabiao, deputy director of the Second Institute of Oceanography, a research body under the State Oceanic Administration, said.

If the atoll had been classified as an island, Japan would reap most of the profits from the resources instead of sharing about half with the intergovernmental International Seabed Authority, he said. The authority helps control activities beyond territorial waters.

Calling the atoll an island "would shrink international waters" and damage global maritime interests, he said.

Several countries, including China, the Republic of Korea and Australia, were concerned about Japan's moves and have repeatedly expressed these concerns to the UN secretary-general, Hong said. According to Article 121 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, rocks that cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf status.


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