As far as China is concerned, they are mere chunks of uninhabitable rock. But for Japan, these tiny specks in the Pacific, collectively known as “distant bird island”, serve as a key economic and strategic outpost at a time of growing concern over Chinese military activity in the region.
Japan announced this week it would spend 13bn yen (£75m) to rebuild an observation post on the remote island of Okinotorishima, located about 1,000 miles south of Tokyo – a move that could reignite a long-running dispute over maritime territory between Tokyo and Beijing.
In recent years, Okinotorishima has been largely overlooked while the north-east Asian rivals clashed diplomatically over sovereignty of the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.
While China has never laid claim to Okinotorishima, Japan’s decision to devote such large sums to the atoll’s upkeep will not be welcomed in Beijing. The area contains rich fishing grounds, potentially huge deposits of oil and other energy resources, as well as rare metals.