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BEIJING — Taiwan has sent two coastal patrol boats to challenge ally Japan’s claim to a "bedroom-sized" outcropping in a simmering dispute over fishing rights.
Japan detained the captain and nine crew members of a 50-ton Taiwanese boat last week but released them after a $54,400 security deposit was paid with help from Taipei's government, according to local media reports.
Tokyo has defended its action claiming the Taiwanese boat was within the 200-mile economic zone off Japan-administered Okinotori atoll, a rocky outcropping in the Pacific Ocean around 1,075 miles south of Tokyo and 975 miles east of Taipei.
An international maritime treaty grants such an economic zone to “islands” while “rocks” are limited to a 12-mile territorial sea. The distinction between “rocks” and “islands” is also at the heart of the South China Sea disputes pitting China against its U.S.-backed maritime neighbors.
"Japan has no right to ban our fishing boats from the area," Taiwan's coast guard administration was quoted as saying in an official statement. "The government will resolutely defend the rights and freedom of our fishermen in international waters."
Taiwan summoned a Japanese representative Friday to protest the vessel's seizure.
However, some experts note that Japan’s claim is anchored on a couple of uninhabitable rocks within the atoll that is reportedly around 100 square feet in combined area — or no bigger than a bedroom — at high tide. Tokyo's approach essentially mirrors Beijing's expansive claims to the South China Sea.
“The irony is that Japan is doing exactly what it is accusing China of doing in the South China Sea,” former Taiwan deputy defense minister Chong-Ping Lin told NBC News. Lin now teaches international and strategic studies at Taiwan’s Tamkang University.
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida last week said China was making the world "worried" with its military buildup and maritime expansion in the East and South China Seas.
China and Japan dispute sovereignty over a group of uninhabited East China Sea islets, while in the South China Sea, Beijing is building islands on reefs to bolster its claims.
China has rattled nerves with its military and construction activities on the islands in the South China Sea, including building runways, though Beijing says most of what it is building is for civilian purposes, like lighthouses.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the waters, through which about $5 trillion in trade is shipped every year.