The United Nations committee that reviews territorial claims to seabeds has ruled in favor of Japanese ownership of a vast swath of the East China Sea. Japan filed the claim in 2008, claiming that it owns the approximately 120,000 square miles of seabed because it also owns the continental shelf connected to it. The area surrounds a small, mostly submerged atoll called Okinotori Island. Japan Times reports:
With the recommendation, Japan would have priority over access to seabed resources in areas near Okinotori, a tiny, mostly submerged atoll 1,700 km south of Tokyo that Japan claims is the southernmost point of its territory.While the traditional limit for claiming an exclusive economic zone is 200 nautical miles, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea allows a coastal state to claim control of the underlying seabed beyond that limit if it can prove the ocean floor is connected to its continental shelf.
As with lots of tiny islands in the western Pacific, Okinotori Island’s surrounding territory is claimed by more than one country. In fact, Japan has not yet formally adopted the UN ruling because some of the territory it would gain overlaps not only with China and South Korea, but also with the United States. While we have every confidence that Japan and the U.S. can work things between them out amicably, the same cannot be said for the other rival claimants.The diplomatically dangerous and sometimes violent exchanges over these territorial disputes in Asian waters kicked into high gear when the Japanese government took control of some previously private islands in the Senkaku chain in 2012. Some argued that the move was benign or at least innocuous; the government had already been treating the islands as Japanese territory, and the sale was actually intended to keep Japanese private entities from developing them. But it was taken as a sign of major aggression by Beijing. Chinese boats and planes have been stirring up geopolitically dangerous trouble ever since.There are some signs, however, that this recent history will not repeat itself. Today, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Susan Rice and emphasized his commitment to friendly China-U.S. relations, which he says he has been seeking since meeting with President Obama in June 2013. From Xinhuanet:
“It has become more important than ever for China and the United States to work with each other as the international situation continues to undergo profound and complex changes,” Xi said during the meeting.He said China stands ready to build a new model of major-country relations with the United States based on non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual respect and win-win cooperation to ensure bilateral ties move forward on a sustainable track.Strategic trust constitutes a cornerstone for the “tower” of the new model, said the president.The Chinese people are striving for the dream of national rejuvenation, which demands a peaceful and stable international environment, Xi said.“China and the United States should increase dialogue, enhance mutual understanding, and respect and take care of each other’s core interests and major concerns to appropriately address disputes and reduce friction,” he said.
The people in charge of China aren’t fools, and some among them see that a stable world order benefits their nation and enables its rise better than do chaos and an adversarial global culture. Xi knows that the primary sticking point between the two nations in the past few years has been Chinese territorial aggression in the Pacific. If he is getting serious about shoring up the relationship between the world’s two most powerful countries, a good test of that will be the tenor of China’s reaction to this latest news about Japanese waters.