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Home > Media Reviews > News Review Last Updated: 14:53 03/09/2007
News Review #287: March 29, 2005

Japan to Set Up Radar on Disputed Islands

Reviewed by Hitoshi URABE

Japan to Set Up Radar on Disputed Islands


Until a few decades ago, the sea, except for a narrow belt surrounding nations' coastlines, was proclaimed to be free to all and belonging to no one. But by mid-20th century there was an impetus to extend national claims over offshore resources. Also, there was growing concern over capturing of coastal fish by long-distance fishing fleets and over the threat of pollution and wastes from transport ships and oil tankers.

In October 1946, Argentina claimed its continental shelf and the sea above it. Chile and Peru in 1947, and Ecuador in 1950, asserted sovereign rights over a 200-mile zone, hoping to limit the access of distant-water fishing fleets. Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Venezuela, and some Eastern European countries laid claim to a 12-mile territorial sea, departing from the traditional three-mile limit. By the late 1960s, oil exploration was moving further from land, and deeper into the bedrock, going as far as 4,000 meters below the ocean surface.

In 1967, Malta's Ambassador to the United Nations, Arvid Pardo, asked the nations of the world to open their eyes to a looming conflict that could devastate the oceans. It led to the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, convened in 1973 to write a comprehensive treaty for the oceans. After 9 years, in 1982, the conference adopted the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

It was a significant achievement in terms of saving the sea, covering 70% of the surface of the earth sustaining the very existence of human beings. What may be even more noteworthy is its characteristics in terms of international law, not only for the extensiveness of its scope, but also for its procedural feature, one being that it was adopted as a "package deal", to be accepted as a whole in all its parts without reservation on any aspect.

It took time, accordingly, for the nations to ratify the Convention. But finally, in November 1994, after the 60th nation submitted its accession, it came into force. Japan, as well as China, ratified the Convention in June 1996.

Except for those with previous knowledge, the location of Okinotorishima, when it is shown on a map, astonishes people to find it so far out in the Pacific Ocean. The existence had been known since before history, but considered useless. One reason is it is too small to sustain livelihood of people, and another is that it is too far out to use as a calling port for fishing or other vessels. For the same reason, the island had not been considered as a site for a military base or to place a lighthouse - in the days when radars or radio beacons were not yet invented.

The significance of the island in the present day exists in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that extends 200 nautical miles from the land. Any island in the middle of an ocean could contain significant potential for various resources.

As the article reports, China asserts, or more precisely, ignores Japan's claim of EEZ around Okinotorishima. China has never challenged the territorial rights over the island, but it apparently takes the position that EEZ does not exist for that island.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, in its Article 121, paragraph 1 provides, "An island is a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide." It does not define the size of the "land," so there is no doubt - and no one has challenged - that Okinotorishima is a set of islands, and it is a part of Japan.

Apparently, the ambiguity arises is in paragraph 3 of the same article where it says, "Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf." This is a poorly written language in terms of laws and rules, and there is no reference to the term "rocks" in any other part of the Convention. Accordingly, the definition is solely to be based upon this paragraph. It does not specify size to differentiate a "rock" from an "island," neither does it define "habitation" nor "economic life."

It is fairly certain that if people were left on the island without contact with outside world it would be difficult to sustain their livelihood. But so would be the case with many islands in other parts of the world used as vacation resorts or private summer houses - not to mention Takeshima where Koreans claim it to be theirs calling it Tokdo and have military troops stationed there.

That said, what is more annoying here is the fact that China bluntly ignores the current status and sends research and possibly military vessels into the area, where it is constantly being visited and conserved by Japan, which has proclaimed its exclusive economic zone there. Is it not a proper and established diplomatic protocol first to raise the issue against Japan for open discussion if China considers the status unsatisfactory, instead of acting like a thief in the night?

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