SUAO, TAIWAN – Amid the rain that falls almost daily during winter in northern Taiwan, the surrounding East China Sea, normally a striking blue, takes on a heavy, gray hue.
For the three parties locked in a territorial spat over the Senkaku Islands off this coast — Japan, China and Taiwan — the outlook is similarly murky, with no clear forecast of a resolution to the dispute.
While Beijing and Tokyo have been steadfast in proclaiming them as an integral part of their respective territories, a body representing Taiwanese fishermen says it only wants fishing access to the islets, regardless of who controls them.
“We are not interested in the issue of sovereignty over the islands. We just want to fish, that’s all we called for last September,” Chen Chun-sheng, chairman of the Taiwan Suao Fishermen’s Association in eastern Taiwan’s Yilan County, said in a recent interview.
Chen organized a fleet of 70 fishing boats and sailed to the Senkakus, called Diaoyu in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan, and entered Japan’s territorial waters on Sept. 25. This sparked an exchange of water cannon fire between Japan Coast Guard ships and Taiwanese patrol ships, described as a “water war” by one Taiwanese reporter.
The incident shocked Japan, which had always considered relations with Taiwan to be free from antagonism. For Japan, China, not Taiwan, had been seen as the rival claimant to the islets. Some Japanese commentators lamented what they saw as the formation of a China-Taiwan alliance against Japan over the Senkakus.
Chen brushed aside any suggestion of an alliance with Beijing, saying: “We didn’t get any help or contribution from mainland China. We carried out the September demonstration of our own accord and with our own funds.”
Prior to the voyage to the Senkakus, Chen’s association had decided not to avoid any signs of collaboration with mainland China. It also agreed to cancel the excursion if mainland fishing boats or Chinese government ships tried to join. If Chinese boats were to join, it could send a message of a China-Taiwan fishermen alliance challenging Japan.
“I got a call from Beijing inquiring about our bank account. The caller said he would put monetary contributions to us in the account. But I declined to give our number,” Chen said. “We simply don’t like to be involved in the big men’s territorial fight between China and Japan.”
It is not well known that Taiwanese traditionally worked the fishing banks near the Senkakus, about 100 km from the Okinawa’s Ishigaki Island. Ishigaki fishermen need to sail across the Okinawa Trough Line, a deep ocean trench, which makes it hard for them to reach the Senkakus.
Chinese mainlanders rarely try commercial fishing near the islets because they are too far away from the mainland and only big coast guard ships or fishing boats funded by the government can afford to reach them. Taiwanese fishermen, especially from the northern region such as Chen’s hometown, have the easiest access to the territory.
“Our fathers and grandfathers fished tuna over there,” said Chen, whose office wall features a giant print of a fish. “The fishing bank around the Tiaoyutai is a treasure-sea for us.”
The prime waters are now out of reach for Chen and his fellow fishermen. Since the U.N. Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East reported in the late 1960s that the ocean bed of the Senkaku area has sizeable oil reserves, Taipei and Beijing started claiming sovereignty over the islets, which were then administered by the U.S. military.
After the U.S. returned Okinawa and the Senkakus to Japan in 1972, Tokyo gradually tightened control of the islets, and in the 1990s started to force out Taiwanese fishing boats from surrounding waters.
“We were deprived of the fishing bank inherited from our ancestors,” Chen lamented.
But it was when Japan officially moved to nationalize the Senkakus last September that Chen felt prompted to organize the nine-hour journey to the islets. “When we heard of Japan’s nationalization decision, we were so worried of losing the fishing right in the area forever.”
In the face of strong protests from the Taiwanese fishermen, Tokyo approached Taipei to negotiate to provide the Taiwanese limited fishing rights to the Senkaku waters. The talks have also been supported by Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou. Ma announced in mid-2012 his East China Sea Peace Initiative, which is basically intended to put the difficult sovereignty issue on ice and agree first on fishing and natural resources.
A senior Japanese official on the negotiating team said Japan was ready to cut a deal with the Taiwanese on fishing in order to bring Taiwan into its fold and form an alliance against Beijing, despite Japan’s general reluctance to provoke Beijing.
Professor Yoshiyuki Ogasawara of Tokyo University of Foreign Studies has proposed that the government make a major concession to accommodate the Taiwanese fishermen.
He said the logic of Beijing’s claim to the islets is based on the territory legally belonging to Taiwan, and Taiwan being a province of China.
But if Taiwan were to soften its claim, it would weaken Beijing’s argument.
Arthur Ding, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations of Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, agreed.
“Although government officials say Taiwan has the sovereignty over the islands, for Taiwan the Senkaku issue is about fishing. Once Taiwanese fishermen get fishing rights from Japan, Taiwan will not challenge Japan on sovereignty.”
Of course for mainland China, the issue is not about fishing. Beijing sees the islets as vitally important to its push to become a major maritime power, while believing its claim of sovereignty over them should be accepted as historically legitimate.
A Taiwanese Foreign Ministry official involved in the fishing negotiations with Japan said Taiwan had been bullied and harassed by Beijing for so long that it could never side with the mainland. “Taiwan and Japan can forge an anti-Beijing alliance. As a matter of fact, Japan can learn much from Taiwan on how to deal with menacing China.”
Despite such assurances, some Japanese skeptics raise concerns that Taiwanese fishermen will eventually come under the influence and control of Beijing, and fishing rights could be used as leverage to gain full control of the islets.
Behind their concerns are the hefty financial contributions Chen’s group received before the Senkaku expedition from a Taiwanese businessman with close links to Beijing. An aide to the businessman said the financial contributions were made to “appease Beijing.”
Another Taiwanese group, comprised not of fishermen but of anti-Japan nationalists, has also tried to send protest ships to the Senkakus in line with Beijing.
Chen said he hated to act as a pawn of Beijing but quickly added, “If my fellow fishermen are continuously kicked out of the fishing bank by Japan’s coast guard, then we have no options other than to ask Beijing to help us and join together.”