China and Japan Must Address Shared Marine Environmental Emergencies
Photo Credit: EPA
By Mark J. Valencia

China and Japan Must Address Shared Marine Environmental Emergencies

Jan. 24, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The January 6, 2018 collision between the Panamanian-flagged Iranian-owned tanker Sanchi and the Hong Kong-registered grain freighter CF Crystal in the East China Sea about 300 kilometers from the mouth of the Yangtze River has created a potential environmental disaster. The tanker caught fire and sank on January 14 killing 32 sailors and spilling some of its one million barrels of ultra-light, highly flammable condensate cargo and its heavier, 8450 barrels of more toxic bunker fuel. By comparison, the largest tanker oil spill so far — the 1989 Exxon Valdez catastrophe — was 270,000 barrels, but that was of more toxic crude oil. The spilled oil has formed slicks covering a combined area of about 40 square miles. The spill is predicted to move southeast into the Japanese claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and may eventually come ashore in the Okinawan archipelago.


Despite being obligated to protect the marine environment, China — in whose 200 nautical mile EEZ the accident occurred — and Japan, whose claimed EEZ is apparently where it sank, have been slow to respond. Neither has taken charge of the clean-up. A salvage team from the Chinese Ministry of Transport has located the wreck on the sea floor and is exploring it to determine how much condensate has burned off and leaked and whether the remainder can be contained. China’s State Oceanic Administration has collected several seawater samples from the area containing petroleum derivatives at levels exceeding standards. Japan was said to be “monitoring the direction” of the spill because “it could direct towards Kagoshima.” Clean-up crews are monitoring the area and trying to assess spill drift and diffusion and its potential ecological impact. But that is about all that has been done more than two weeks after the accident. This is simply too little too late. This delay in response is in part due to political tension between China and Japan and their conflicting claims to territory and jurisdiction in the area.


According to the UN Convention the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which both have ratified, a country has sovereign rights over the living and non-living resources of the waters superjacent to the sea-bed and of the sea-bed and its subsoil, and jurisdiction with regard to marine scientific research and the protection and preservation of the marine environment. Both are obliged to take all measures consistent with the Convention that are necessary to prevent, reduce and control pollution of their EEZ from any source. Such measures shall include “those designed to minimize to the fullest possible extent pollution from vessels, in particular measures for preventing accidents and dealing with emergencies.” Also, according to UNCLOS, in semi-enclosed seas like the East China Sea, bordering states should coordinate the implementation of their rights and duties with respect to the protection and preservation of the marine environment. It would appear that these obligations have not been fulfilled.


There is some controversy as to the potential environmental impact of such an unprecedented amount of condensate on marine life. Uncertainty abounds. What is known is that condensate can be toxic to corals such as those found in the Okinawan archipelago and the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

To avoid delays in addressing such potential environmental disasters in disputed areas, the political obstacles must be overcome.

Vulnerable and valuable marine resources in the East China Sea include fisheries, mammals, and coral reefs. The fishery resources of the East China Sea have long been subject to heavy fishing pressures and almost all stocks are now fully or over exploited. The main fishing nations there are South Korea, Japan, China, and Taiwan. They target, among others, hairtail, yellow croaker, mackerel, scads, and prawns. Moreover, parts of the East China Sea are spawning and wintering grounds for some of these species. But the main impact on fisheries is likely to be tainting that will affect the commercial value of the catch. Moreover, scientists have already warned consumers to avoid seafood from the area until the relevant governments have analyzed their toxicity. Thus, consumers may avoid fish caught in the area whether not they are contaminated. The area is also known to harbor many marine mammals like whales and dolphins as well as hawksbill turtles but the likely effect on these animals is unknown.


China’s and Japan’s claims to the area are complicated and involve conflicting claims to territory, as well as claims to both continental shelves and 200 nm EEZs. Both claim sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkakus — eight uninhabited islets and rocks about 120 nm southwest of Okinawa. Japan controls the features but both China and Taiwan have formally incorporated them into their administrative systems. Since Japan nationalized the Senkakus in 2012, the disputes have heated up with both China and Japan undertaking provocative and dangerous actions to demonstrate their sovereignty.


China holds that the Diaoyu islands are small, uninhabited features that cannot sustain an economic life of their own, and thus according to UNCLOS they are not entitled to generate a continental shelf or a 200nm EEZ. However, Japan argues that the features are legal islands, and are entitled to have continental shelves and EEZs. Moreover it uses them as base points for its continental shelf and EEZ claims toward China in the East China Sea.


Even if the conflicting sovereignty claims to the features did not exist, China and Japan have overlapping claims to continental shelves in the East China Sea. The parties cite different principles of international law to support their claims. China uses the principle of natural prolongation of its land territory. It argues that the East China Sea continental shelf is the natural extension of the Chinese continental shelf and thus is under the jurisdiction of China. China argues further that the Okinawa Trough delineates the edge of the continental margin and thus the axis of the Trough serves as the boundary between their continental shelves and that of Japan. Japan on the other hand argues that the Trough is just an incidental depression in a continuous continental margin between the two countries and thus the continental shelf boundary should be the line equidistant between the undisputed territories of the two countries.


As urged by UNCLOS, China and Japan have agreed to share fish stocks in defined portions of their disputed area. They have also agreed in principle to implement joint development of seabed resources in the central East China Sea. Moreover, after several serious incidents they established a mutual “prior notification” regime for scientific research in their disputed area in the East China Sea. But these agreements have all but unravelled because of the recent resurgence of the sovereignty and jurisdictional disputes. Indicating the seriousness of the situation, they recently agreed on the implementation of a crisis management and communication mechanism to avoid sea and air clashes there.


Unfortunately, in an environmental emergency like this, they have no joint contingency plans. Moreover, concern that unilateral actions taken or permission given to the other to act may be misunderstood or prejudice their claims has retarded responses from both countries. To avoid delays in addressing such potential environmental disasters in disputed areas, the political obstacles must be overcome. This particular emergency could provide an opportunity to do so — or to at least jointly plan for the next one.

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