Japan grows an island to check China’s territorial ambitions

Today Online 28 Dc 15;

OKINAWA — China’s artificial islands are fuelling a new struggle for control of Asia’s oceans, but while the regional superpower dredges military bases out of the ocean, Japan is growing an island in a bathtub.

The island is called Okinotorishima, or “distant bird island”; a remote, storm-wracked coral atoll in the Philippine Sea, where two small outcrops protrude at high tide. Japan regards the atoll as its southernmost point; China says it is no island, merely a rock.

For millennia, as the land beneath it sank, layers of coral grew on top and kept the atoll’s head above water. But now Okinotorishima is dying. Climate change is raising the sea level and killing the coral. Typhoons bite at what remains. Japan is therefore on a desperate quest to regrow the reef. The results will decide the fate of a strategic redoubt, with legal repercussions in the South China Sea, and could offer hope to other atolls threatened by climate change.

The bathtub, full of baby coral growing on iron plates, sits in a greenhouse at the Deep Seawater Research Institute on the island of Kumejima. Workers explain how they brought coral from Okinotorishima and harvested eggs. They will grow the baby corals in this laboratory for a year then transplant them back to the atoll.

For the scientists working on the project it is a battle with the ocean. They have successfully cultivated coral from the reef and transplanted it back to the island, but it is not enough. “The next technology ... is keeping up with the rising sea by coral growth and accumulation of coral gravels and sand,” says Mr Hajime Kayanne, a professor at the University of Tokyo.

“Our experiments with planting coral on Okinotorishima are ongoing,” says Mr Makoto Omori, emeritus professor at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology. “We’ve made progress in expanding the area of coral planted, but the death rate of the transplanted coral is high, so we can’t yet say the amount of coral on the island is increasing.”

No amount of transplantation can revive a reef by itself, says Mr Omori. Rather, the goal is for the transplants to spread across the atoll. Working in such a remote place is challenging because it is hard to monitor the coral.

For the scientists, rescuing Okinotorishima means saving the world’s coral, and the many islands that exist because of it. In the past four decades, 40 per cent of the world’s reefs have died. “The ecotechnology established in Okinotorishima can be applied to all the small atoll islands in the Pacific and Indian Ocean,” says Mr Kayanne. “We have almost 500 atolls in the world, and some island countries such as the Marshalls, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Maldives are completely formed of atolls.”

Japan’s generous funding has baser motives, however — the tiny reef looms large in the minds of military planners. Strategists talk of the two island chains separating China from the Pacific: The first running through the main Japanese islands, to Okinawa and Taiwan; the second through Japan’s Ogasawara Islands to the Marianas and the United States submarine base at Guam.


In a hypothetical future conflict between the US and China, their navies would collide in the ocean between the two chains — and Okinotorishima is the only speck of land in those waters.

Mr Hideaki Kaneda, a retired vice-admiral now at the Okazaki Institute, points out three ways in which the location matters to Japan’s security. First, he says, it would be a crucial theatre “for the Chinese military to deny access to reinforcements coming from the east”.

Second, Okinotorishima sits on the route Chinese nuclear submarines would take out into the Pacific, towards patrolling positions against the US. Third, it lies close to the sea lanes on which raw materials flow to Japan from northern and western Australian ports. That makes a 200-mile exclusive economic zone around Okinotorishima, and thus greater control of those waters, a strategic asset beyond even the natural resources that might lie beneath the surface.

Only an island can generate an exclusive economic zone, however, not a rock — which is the other reason why Japan is trying to regrow the coral, rather than mirroring China by laying down a few thousand tonnes of sand and concrete. Article 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea defines an island as a “naturally formed area of land” which is “above water at high tide”. It excludes “rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own”.

China’s new islands in the South China Sea are artificial. If Japan revives the coral on Okinotorishima, however, it can argue the feature is “naturally formed”. At the same time, the very activity of farming coral is part of Japan’s effort to show the atoll has an economic life, and support its more dubious contention that Okinotorishima is not a “rock”.

“There is no clear definition of rocks in UNCLOS — this is the government of Japan’s stance,” says Mr Kaneda. “Historically, Japan has sustained the ‘economic life’ of the island.”

By taking this position, Japan hopes to claim Okinotorishima as an island with its own EEZ, while still opposing China’s reclamation in the South China Sea. Some scholars argue it would be wiser to give up the claim — the better to assert China’s island-building is illegitimate — but the military value of Okinotorishima makes that unlikely.

Legal wrangles will not matter if the atoll erodes away, however. “We’ve had various problems and failures along the way, but next year we expect to plant three hectares of coral,” says Mr Omori. “A three-hectare plantation will be a world first.” FINANCIAL TIMES

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