Recommendations of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) and Strategic Importance of Okinotori-shima

-Japanese Response to the Chinese A2/AD Strategy-

Rear Admiral (Ret.) Masami Kawamura,Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force


1. Recommendations of the CLCS and China’s Repulsion

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan announced on April 28, 2012 the following statement (summary) on the recommendations of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) regarding the submission made by Japan of expansion of the limits of the continental shelf.

(1) On April 27 (local time of Japan), Japan received the CLC recommendations on the submission regarding the expansion of the continental shelf made by Japan.

(2) Of the Shikoku Basin Region, we recognize that the expansion of Japan’s continental shelf with the base point of Okinotorishima has been approved.

(3) Of the Southern Kyushu-Palau Ridge Region, although advice is delayed, continuous efforts will be made for advice regarding the said sea area.

(4) As a whole, CLCS recommendations of this time are considered an important step toward expanding Japan’s oceanic interests.

Arguing against this announcement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of China, on the same day, April 28, immediately reacted, stating, “China’s position on the Okinotori Reef is consistent that that Okinotori Reef should have neither exclusive economic zone nor continental shelf according to international law (UNCLOS, Article 121, 3).” China and the Republic of Korea voice a protest, insisting, “Okinotori-shima is not an island, but a reef.” Especially, there has been the case that China had submitted to the CLCS a verbal note including specific content that the CLCS would not recognize Japan’s submission of the expansion of the limits of the continental shelf from the Okinotori-shima as the base point.

Incidentally, the Republic of Palau notices the overlap between its continental shelf and what Japan is pointing out as “The Southern Kyushu-Palau Ridge Region,” but gives its verbal note to the CLCS of no objection to the content of Japan’ s submission.

2.Expansion of the Limits of the Continental Shelf from Okinotorishima as the Base Point

Among the sea areas of Japan’s submission to expand the limits of continental shelf, only two sea areas, “The Southern Kyushu-Palau Ridge Region” and “The Shikoku Basin Region” are the sea areas that Okinotori-shima becomes the base point

According to the summary of the CLCS recommendations published on June 3, 2012, as to the “Southern Kyushu-Palau Ridge Region,” for which the recommendations have not been issued, the CLCS is not in a position to take actions to issue recommendations until the matters referred to in the verbal note (objection from China and ROK and refutation from Japan) are resolved.

On the other hand, as for the “Shikoku Basin Region,” it is understood that the government’s written answer to the question asked by the honorable Masahisa Sato, LDP member of the House of Councillors of Japan, says, “The CLCS recommendation of the approximately 310,000 square kilometer area which covers most of the area of the Shikoku Basin Region of the submission was to expand the limits of the continental shelf from Okinotori-shima as the base point.”

3. Strategic Importance of Okinotori-shima

Apart from the case of the ROK, the reason China is stuck to Okinotori-shima is because China is considering that Okinotori-shima lies in the middle between the first island chain, regarded as the Chinese defense front line, and the second island chain, which will become a point of strategic importance. China fears that if Okinotori-shima is recognized as an island, the narrowest 200 nautical miles from that point will be in Japan’s EEZ.

China disapproves of other nations’ military activities within its EEZ. Instances include the following: collision of US EP-3 and Chinese air force fighter in international air space, 65 miles southeast of Hainan Island; and in March and May 2009, within the Chinese EEZ in the South China Sea, US Navy’s oceanographic research vessel repeatedly interfered with both Chinese ships and aircraft.

If Okinotori-shima is an “island” and if the 200 mile EEZ of Japan from that base line is recognized, China’s naval vessels’ activities there are to be constrained, viewed from the standpoint of China. As far as it keeps the stance of not admitting other countries’ military activities inside its own EEZ, China may not favor approval of Okinotori-shima as an “island.” However, on the other hand, because China has altered some reefs into artificial islands in the South China Sea as seen in the picture below, it is not denied that China takes a double standard modality.

4. China’s A2/AD Strategy

It was indeed a big news when China’s first aircraft carrier appeared in August 2011, but considerable time and expense are needed before the aircraft carrier can function as a Carrier Battle Group (CVBG). Also, it is not yet estimated whether China’s aircraft carrier is able to ever upgrade as a contrast weapon system possibly capable of engaging with US CVBG. The weapon system which has the possibility to upgrade dramatically the A2/AD strategy of China against US CVBG may be rather DF-21D, the first model of anti-ship ballistic missile in the world possible to attack a moving target like an aircraft carrier being able to be launched from anywhere inside China by mobile launchers.

General Chen Bingle, Commanding General of People’s Liberation Army, General Staff Department of China, refers to the DF-21D publicly in 2011 for the first time stating, “It is still in a stage of research and development and has not yet operational capability and so many difficulties exist for the research and development.” However, US experts are interpreting that the meaning of “Operational” referred to by General Chen Bingle is “Full Operational Capability (FOC)” if it is expressed in the manner of the United States standard, and it cannot be denied that China has reached the level of “Initial Operational Capability (IOC).” Likewise, Taiwan’s 2011 Report on Defense pointed out that the production and deployment, albeit small, started in 2010 in China and this view conforms to that of US experts. In 2011, China Daily reported that General Chen Bingle had mentioned that the DF-21D ASBM has a range of 2,700 kilometers (1,700 miles). If true, the ASBM is to cover a little short of Guam but the greater part of the inside of the Second Island Chain. However, Associate Professor Andrew S. Erickson of the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI), the United States Naval War College, who circulated this news at once to the West, points out that it has come to the fore recently that the China Daily possibly made an error in claiming 2,700 km range of DF-21A (not ASBM but MSBM). The DF-21D range is a matter of concern to the US Navy, particularly regarding the sea area of US aircraft carrier activities, and therefore, will be a sensitive problem. The 2010 version report concerning the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2012” published by the US Department of Defense, uses an expression of implication in observing the range of this particular ASBM as exceeding 1,500 km. At any rate, with the emergence of the world-first ASBM (DF-21D), it cannot be denied that the possibility of Chinese A2/AD capabilities will become greater (or has been remarkably enhanced).

5. Response of Japan and the United States

Even though the range of the DF-21D exceeds 1,500 kilometers, Yokosuka comes within range from either Liaoning, Jinlin or Hailongjang. Although there is not yet proof of the precise range or its operational stage, even such uncertainty functions as deterrence indicative of China’s desire to have the DF-21D, and also to have the A2/AD strategy. US naval officers in command of forward deployment forces will have to make decision taking into account a risk, when CVBG occurs between the first and second inland chains, or the Group must engage in operations in the South China Sea, that they should put the Group into the scope of China’s ASBM in addition to devising countermeasures against sophisticated Chinese submarines, anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), and mines.

The platform first thought not to be exposed to the threat of the ASBM is the submarine. Japan has already been changing to improve the operational posture of submarine forces possessing 22 from 16 submarines.

In this connection, according to the report of the US Congress Research Service, as far as the US response to Chinese navy modernization is concerned, the measures of the DOD level include the following: to place a continued importance on the Asia-Pacific region; to maintain 11 carrier groups and 10 carrier air groups; to develop an Air-Sea Battle concept; to deploy the Marine Corps to Australia; and deploy the Littoral Combat Ship to Singapore. The measures that the United States is taking against China’s A2/AD capabilities are said to include at least those below.

a. To strengthen the exercises of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) of the US Pacific Fleet forces

b. To deploy assault type nuclear submarines, (SSN) and (SSGN) toward the Pacific area

c. To deploy battle ships having BMD capability toward the Pacific area

d. To reinforce battle ships with BMD capability and to increase the number of interceptor missile (SM-3)

In conjunction with such US measures, Japan will need to devise measures making use of its geographical features. For instance, my view is that the following two thoughts are particularly important.

(1) Build-up of a constantly continuous anti-submarine capability and anti-mine surveillance capability in Japan’s territorial areas on the first island chain as well as maintenance of ASW and anti-mine warfare capabilities in the same area will be needed. For that purpose it will need to build up a new underwater monitoring function in the Southwest Islands Chain.

(2) And, Okinotori-shima, situated in the middle between Okinawa and Guam along the areas between the first and second island chains, should be secured in such a manner as the factors of an “island” would be maintained. As illustrated in the next figure below, the delta sea area linking Taiwan, Guam and Yokosuka is a strategically important area having a strong bearing upon the peace and security of East Asia, and furthermore, the sea-lane which must be said to be Japan’s thread of life is extending all to the world from this sea area. And this sea area is the convergent sea area of the sea traffic routes running to the North American continent from China. Indeed, Okinotori-shima is situated in the central axis of that area.

6. Preservation of Okinotori-shima

China claims the place, saying, “Okinotori-shima is a rock, not an island, and the EEZ which is measured by a rock as the base point should not be recognized,” and has continued to conduct its marine survey activities inside that EEZ.

The “Regime of Island,” UNCLOS Part VIII, Article 121, by which China makes the definition of island the basis of its claim, is stipulated as follows.

a. An island is a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide.

b. Except as provided for in paragraph 3, the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf of an island are determined in accordance with the provisions of this Convention applicable to other land territory.

c. Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.

The government of Japan claims that the status of Okinotori-shima from the viewpoint of international law is an island in accordance with the provision of paragraph 1 above, while the basis China claims is in accordance with the provision of paragraph 3, and thus Okinotori-shima is made of rocks and not considered an island. The view of the Japanese government is that paragraph 3 provides the qualification not of island but rocks, and therefore, it is not related to the provision of paragraph 1. However, in order to be more persuasive to other countries regarding the status of Okinotori-shima as an island, Japan must clarify compatibility with the paragraph 1 as well as not contravene paragraph 3. The preservation of Okinotori-shima as an island is an agenda urgently required for Japan

Under these circumstances, the Ocean Policy Research Foundation has conducted research and study on the maintenance and reclamation of Okinotori-shima in a three-year plan from fiscal 2006. Three points in the gist of the outcomes, of which a report was published in March 2009, are as follows.

(1) What is most important is to prevent submergence of Higashi Kojima and Kita Kojima at the time of high tide, which has becomes the basis of the claims for territorial sea and continental shelf. Restoration of the present existence and the bank protection work for both islets are effective for the time being, but the problem is within the range of possibility of submergence by a rise in sea level accompanied by global warming within this century.

(2) Then, assuming the submergence of these two islets, it is necessary to create on the table reef such a land, more than one, as being above the surface of the water even at high tide, which is construed as having “formed naturally.”As one of the examples, there is an idea that a sandy island on a table reef, formed by coral pieces and remnants of foraminifers, should be created. As a matter of fact, actions have already been taken to realize this idea.

(3) Even though the island submergence could be protected, what comes important next is to develop and carry out as much as possible economic and commercial activities inside the table reef and in the surrounding territorial seas. To establish the requisite “an independent economical life” activities are limited to the table reef and territorial sea. The right to develop the resources of the EEZ and continental shelf is granted only after the Okinotori-shima has the status of an island. As far as the idea to utilize Okinotori-shima is concerned, various ideas are proposed, such as electricity generation by temperature difference, wind and solar power generation, various activities using aquatic resources, development of mineral resources at sea bottom, varieties of research projects, and establishment of bases for survey, and of observation equipment and facilities.

In addition, the Japan Coast Guard established a lighthouse on Okinotori-shima in March 2007 and started operations. This lighthouse aims at safety and upgrading the operational efficiency of ships and fishery boats sailing around the surrounding sea areas of the Okinotori-shima, and is thought to augment the aspect of maintaining “an independent economical life.”

Here, referring to installation of electricity generation and observation equipment and facilities stated in (3) above, my explanation will touch upon only a proposal of an idea of utilizing a seabed communication cable as the means of communication to link with the idea of maintaining “an independent economical life.”

This is an idea proposing that if there is an existing seabed communication cable, or if there is a new plan, connecting with Guam and Japan [(unloading stations: of Okinawa, Miyazaki (Sadohara), Kanagawa (Ninomiya), Chiba (Chigura), and such)], the cables would diverge from the comparatively closer point on these cable routes and unload and connect on Okinotori-shima, hereby transmitting data of the observation equipment and facilities in a real time to Japan and Guam. For instance, data of meteorological and oceanic phenomena could be monitored on the main land, and from the main land such information of meteorological and oceanic phenomena would be distributed by such means as communication satellites to ships and fishing boats engaging in operations in the surrounding sea area, thus contributing to the economical life.

Of course, such meteorological information will be helpful for the people’s livelihood in Guam, as well. If possible, it is preferable that this project should be implemented jointly with the United States. For the United States it should likewise be desirable that Japan, an allied country, will govern Okinotori-shima and the sea areas surrounding that island. Connecting Okinotori-shima with mainland Japan and the US, Guam physically has a symbolic meaning of preserving Okinotori-shima with the United States.

In closing, in connection with the Japan-led “Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM)” held on May 25and 26 this year, the fact that it became an epochal opportunity to discuss questions concerning the maritime security of this region is greatly valued. The United States participate in the PALM for the first time and made mention of the importance of ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea expressing its active involvement with the issues. This is highly appreciated likewise. On the other hand, setting a conference with Fiji to the PALM, China thus made its antagonistic attitude clear.

Viewing this action of China, the integrity of Okinotori-shima as an “island” must be hastened. Going ahead with it, Japan will have to make a profound effort to be able to receive recommendations from CLCS at an early stage, taking into account fully having gained understanding of the Republic of Palau, on “the Southern Kyushu-Palau Ridge Region,” to which CLCS’s recommendations for Japan’s submission on the expansion of continental shelf have been postponed.

* The views voiced here are his alone.

From “Intelligence Analysis (June 2012)”