Several research vessels belonging to different Chinese organizations are closely collaborating to conduct marine surveys around Okinotori Island, Japan’s southernmost point, Sankei learned on Dec. 27. Japan has applied to extend the continental shelf off Okinotori Island. The Japanese government concluded on the basis of its analysis that “the Chinese government is taking the initiative” in the increasingly active Chinese marine surveys in the area. If Japan’s application to extend the continental shelf is approved, Japan will have rights to develop seabed resources. It is thought that China has directed various organizations to collect data on the topography and geology of the seabed to counter argue against Japan’s claim.
This was the first time the Japanese government has disclosed the systematic analysis of China’s marine surveys. China has repeatedly conducted without permission surveys in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), including Okinotori Island and areas around Okinawa such as the Senkaku Islands. China has not responded to Japan’s request to halt the surveys. In order to conduct diplomacy, Japan urgently needed to conduct an analysis of China’s intent.
The Chinese research vessel Dayang conducted an unauthorized survey in the EEZ around Okinotori Island in July 2020. In response, Japan made a detailed analysis of the past activities of Chinese research vessels in the area. The Japan Coast Guard conducted the analysis, and the results were reported to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and others. In fiscal 2020 the JCG created the position of marine information analysis officer to monitor and analyze illegal marine surveys by foreign entities.
According to the analysis, a total of five Chinese research vessels have been confirmed in the open sea off the southern tip of the EEZ around Okinotori Island since 2018. The vessels belonged to different organizations including government agencies and universities. The dates of the surveys varied. The areas of the vessels operations that extended several hundred kilometers in each direction did not overlap, and there was barely a place that was not surveyed. The five vessels maneuvered in a manner characteristic of vessels engaged in marine seabed research, such as moving at a uniform speed and turning at equidistant intervals.
The analysis states that “research vessels belonging to different organizations worked in close collaboration to conduct surveys that mostly took place after 2019,” concluding that “there is a possibility that the Chinese government is leading the surveys.”
The area where China has conducted surveys is called the “southern Kyushu-Palau ridge” territorial waters. In 2008, Japan applied to the U.N. Commissions on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) to expand its continental shelf to an area extending 4.5 kilometers from east to west and 1.7 kilometers north and south with Okinotori Island as its origin. In the research conducted for the application, Japan confirmed the existence of an undersea mountain range that indicates the continental shelf extends from Okinotori Island toward the Republic of Palau, based on characteristics of undersea geological features and plates.
The CLCS put off a decision because China and other countries opposed the application based on the claim that Okinotori Island is a “rock.”
If the extension of the continental shelf is approved, Japan would gain rights to develop seabed resources and China and other countries would not be able to conduct surveys and development activities without Japan’s permission. Okinotori Island, a reference point, would be positioned as an “island.” China, which places importance on waters around Okinotori in its maritime strategy, is thought to be searching for evidence that refutes Japan’s claim of a geological connection.
Palau is applying for an extension of its continental shelf in the same waters. Approval of Palau’s extension would support Japan’s application. The vice chairperson of the CLCS subcommittee that will review Palau’s application belongs to China’s Ministry of Natural Resources, which operates the vessel Dayang. Japan is concerned that Palau’s review will face hurdles.
Japan faces further issues with China and other countries over rights and interests in waters other than those near Okinotori Island. A person connected to the Japanese government notes that the government “should strengthen the framework centered on the JCG, which leads the government’s maritime surveys,” and that it will be necessary to “compile data with the involvement of private research organizations.”