- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
After making its first aerial incursion into Japanese-controlled airspace near disputed islands, China compounded tensions with Japan by bolstering its territorial claims at the United Nations.
On Dec. 14, two days before elections in Japan, China submitted to the world body an 11-page report citing the continental shelf’s geology to claim ownership of the islands in the East China Sea, which may be surrounded by undersea oil and natural gas fields.
“Physiognomy and geological characteristics show that the continental shelf in the East China Sea is the natural prolongation of China’s land territory,” China said. On that basis, China extends its claim to resource rights beyond the standard 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
Continental Shelf claims are addressed in Part VI of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. In case you’re wondering…
"The continental shelf of a coastal State comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend up to that distance."
The treaty gives states wide rights to explore and use natural resources in their shelf, but also notes that this control "must not infringe or result in any unjustifiable interference with navigation and other rights and freedoms of other States" — a concept China has had some disagreements with recently.
The continental shelf issue has been discussed quite a bit in reference to claims in the Arctic. In 2007, Russia sent a submarine to plant a flag under the North Pole, in an effort to reinforce its claim that the region falls within its continental shelf. The U.S. may soon also seek to define its shelf in the region , though the Senate’s refusal to ratify the Law of the Sea treaty could make this tricky.