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Island building rises as opportunity for China in the Pacific

Island building rises as opportunity for China in the Pacific

The Pacific islands contribute the least to climate change. But they’re the most vulnerable to its impacts. The issue of maritime boundaries and sea level rise is current and critical for our Pacific Island neighbours, whose combined maritime areas are 44 times greater than their combined land areas.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea gives each island a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, normally measured from the low water line of its coast. Straight baselines connecting points on the coast or offshore features may also be used in certain circumstances.

The rights associated with their maritime zones, including rights over fisheries, are key to their continued economic development. But rising sea levels threaten to reduce the extent of coastal states’ maritime zones as coastlines retreat, or offshore features, such as islands, rocks and reefs, used as part of the baseline, are eroded or submerged.

The problem gets trickier because UNCLOS states that islands that can’t sustain human habitation or economic life of their own are “rocks” and don’t qualify for an EEZ. The surrounding ocean area becomes high seas and is available for distant water fishing nations to exploit marine resources at will. The central western Pacific accounts for over half of the world’s total global tuna catch.

Five years ago, the Marshall Islands introduced legislation on maritime limits that included essentially a geographic information system file turned into text, with hundreds of pages of co-ordinates. Other Pacific nations are mapping their remote island territories and submitting the data to the UN, hoping to secure permanent rights to their EEZs, irrespective of sea level rise. Like the Marshalls, rather than basing their EEZs on maritime charts, (which may change), they’re attempting to legislate that their EEZs be set by geographical co-ordinates.