Home / Articles / The Curious Case of Okinotori: Reef, Rock, or Island?
The July 12 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague in favor of the Philippines’ case against China’s claim to sovereignty over large portions of the South China Sea created ripple effects that went far beyond the area involved. In denying that many of the entities claimed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were islands, which would entitle them to exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of 200 nautical miles from their base lines, but rocks, which are entitled to only a 12-mile exclusion zone, the tribunal also undermined the Japanese government’s claim that Okinotori is an island.
These distinctions are not trivial. If Okinotori were recognized as an island, Japan would be entitled to an additional 116,474 sq. nautical miles, or about 400,000 sq. km, of EEZ. This is larger than the total land area of the rest of Japan.
The Japanese government, which had previously transferred coast guard vessels to the Philippines to assist Manila in patrolling areas claimed by China, immediately affirmed the PCA’s decision, but also reiterated Japan’s claim to Okinotori’s status as an island, Okinotorishima. Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio noted that the court’s verdict applied only to the issues between China and the Philippines, adding that Okinotori had been regarded as an island since 1931 – presumably because the Japanese government’s declaration of sovereignty over it as a shima, island, in that year was uncontested – and, further, that the court had not set the standards for what constitutes a rock. Earlier, Kuribayashi Tadao, a highly regarded Japanese expert on the law of the sea, had argued that there was no legal definition of a rock, and since rocks are not coral reefs, a country can claim an EEZ based on its possession of the latter. Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide essentially repeated Kishida’s points the following day.