Japan, an archipelago of 6,852 islands, is in danger of losing its far-flung territories as rising sea level threatens its existence. The submerging of territories would mean Japan losing out on vital exclusive economic zones (EEZ) potentially loaded with natural resources.
Hence, Tokyo is looking for solutions to protect these territories and re-gain the ones under foreign control.
Presently, Tokyo is in an dispute with Moscow, Taipei, Beijing and Seoul over disputed islands. Japan firmly believes that the islands should be under its administration, however, the other countries are looking to hold onto them.
The dispute with Russia is over the eastern part of Sakhalin Island and other small isles which were captured by the Soviet Union near the end of WWII. Till date, the islands are controlled by Moscow with Tokyo’s efforts to reclaim the islands not bearing any fruit.
The squabble with South Korea involves an island between Japan and the Korean Peninsula known as Dok-do in Korea and Takeshima in Japanese. Seoul maintains a unit of armed police officers over the disputed Island.
Japan is also in dispute with China and Taiwan, both of which claim sovereignty over the uninhabited Senkaku archipelago, in the far west of Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture.
Newly recognized threats to the nation’s territorial integrity are rising sea levels and the inevitable effects of long-term erosion. Far-flung territories in the ocean are economically beneficial for nations as they allow it to make use of the EEZ concept.
An EEZ is a concept adopted at the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (1982), whereby a coastal State assumes jurisdiction over the exploration and exploitation of marine resources in its adjacent section of the continental shelf, taken to be a band extending 200 miles from the shore.
The law also states that rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life on their own shall have no exclusive economic zone. The same goes for islands that get submerged due to rising sea levels.
Thus rising sea levels and the inevitable effects of long-term erosion form the newly recognized threats to the nation’s territorial integrity.
Japan has already lost the island of Esanbe Hanakita Kojima, which disappeared in 2018 due to sea ice. Similarly, an island plotted on Japanese maps in 1985 and named Suzume Kitakojima is no longer there.
Akitoshi Miyashita, a professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Sophia University says that the islands also have a political significance for the government since they are an integral part of the island nations.
Studies suggest that the Pacific Ocean is a treasure trove loaded with natural resources such as oil and natural gas. If Japan loses more islands to rising water levels or cannot take back control of the disputed islands, it can no longer explore and exploit resources unilaterally under the EEZ.
This explains the significance of Okinotorishima, an atoll that is 1,740 kilometres (1,081 miles) south of Tokyo. The atoll is re-inforced with breakwaters to protect a patch of concrete that measures less than 10 square meters and is just 16 centimetres above the high tide level.
This patch of concrete, however, permits Japan to claim an exclusive economic zone covering 400,000 square kilometres of the surrounding waters.
Russia, South Korea, Taiwan and China all argue the validity of the EEZ due to the atoll being inhabitable but that argument will be moot soon since the atoll is predicted to sink in the future.
Another worrying factor for Tokyo is increasing Chinese aggression in the region. Both countries have a different way of advancing claims with Japan taking the diplomatic route and China the aggressive route. Tokyo was furious after a Chinese survey vessel was discovered around Okinotorishima atoll.
Japan issued a diplomatic protest to Beijing upon the discovery of the vessels. Beijing claims that the vessel was carrying out routine survey work. However, experts believe that China may have been seeking deep water passages that would allow its submarines to emerge undetected into the Pacific under the pretext of surveying.
In a changing world order, it is highly likely that the disputes which have been cold until now could turn hot. At stake is not just the economic windfall but also the integrity of Japan.