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China blasts Japan’s ‘selfish claim’ over vast area of Pacific near Taiwan

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China blasted Japan for a “selfish claim” over an area of the Pacific Ocean larger than France, reigniting a longstanding territorial fight between Asia’s two largest economies.

Japan has long claimed Okinotori, which is approximately halfway between Taiwan and Guam, as its southernmost island. China says it’s merely a reef, and does not entitle Japan to benefits such as a 200 nautical-mile radius exclusive economic zone or continental shelf that would apply to an island under international law.

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“Japan, in pursuit of selfish interest, has illegally staked claim to nearly 700,000 square kilometers of jurisdictional waters based on the tiny reef,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday, adding that this “undermines the overall interests of the international community.”

The uninhabited territory consists of low-lying rocks that have been augmented with concrete by Japan, in a precursor to similar but more ambitious projects undertaken by China in the South China Sea.

Tokyo’s local government, which administers Okinotori, says the associated exclusive economic zone amounts to 420,000 square kilometers (162,000 square miles), larger than Japan’s total land mass.

Recognition of Japan’s claims could potentially constrain China’s naval activities in the area. Beijing has stepped up surveys of surrounding waters and its scholars recently published a number of reports disputing Japan’s analysis, according to the Sankei newspaper.

“China might feel that it’s got the international law on its side,” said Euan Graham, a senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, who called Japan’s claims over the waters around Okinotori “laughable.”

“Clearly it is cherry picking the things that embarrass the countries that it wants to embarrass and there is a clear double standard with what it’s doing in the South China Sea,” he added, referring to China.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own bring no entitlement to an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. Artificial islands do not have a territorial sea of their own under UNCLOS.

An international tribunal ruled in 2016 that China’s own efforts to assert control over the South China Sea, partly through territorial claims stemming from artificial islands, exceeded its legal rights under the UN Law of the Sea. China refused to accept the ruling on procedural grounds.

In response to questions about China’s scientific reports on Okinotori, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said on May 30 the country’s 2008 application to the Unclos Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf was based on plentiful scientific evidence. South Korea and Taiwan also dispute Japan’s claims.

Read more: Japan PM Kishida calls China's development in E. China Sea ‘unacceptable’

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