China’s island-building spree in the South China Sea has provoked alarm from its Southeast Asian neighbors as well as the U.S. government. But while the scale of China’s effort is unprecedented—over the past two or three years, China has reclaimed about five square miles of land—it’s not the only Asian country building up land in order to stake a claim in contested seas.
The Financial Times reports on Japan’s ongoing efforts to build up Okinotorishima, a coral atoll in the South China Sea. More than 1,000 miles south of Tokyo, the atoll, which hosts a small research platform, is on a crucial sea lane between Japan and Australia as well as right in the middle of the route Chinese submarines would take to challenge American ships in the Pacific in the event of a military conflict.
Japan wants to control the 200-mile exclusive economic zone around Okinotorishima, but under international law, it only has rights to that zone around an island, not a rock, which is what China argues it is. The definition of a rock is a little vague, but with the coral reef dying and sea levels rising thanks to climate change, Okinotorishima barely sticks above the sea level at high tide, bolstering China’s case that’s its just a rock.
So, Japan has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build up the “island,” including an ambitious effort to bolster the coral reef by regrowing baby corals in a lab and then transporting them to the atoll. This has turned the island into an unlikely laboratory for combating the destruction of the world’s coral reefs, as well as methods that could help other small islands threatened by sea level rise.
If these efforts are successful, Tokyo is also likely to make much out of the fact that its island is “natural,” albeit human-assisted—as opposed to the wholly artificial structures built by China in the South China Sea. It will hopefully also be far less destructive than Beijing’s effort, which is devastating reefs by piling sand on top of them and dredging shipping canals. Japan’s motives may not be any more pure, but in this case, there may be a positive outcome for coral if not for humans.