Japan and Taiwan concluded a long-awaited fisheries agreement Wednesday in Taipei after officials from both sides formally resumed negotiations for the first time in four years.
The deal will allow Taiwanese trawlers to operate in part of Japan’s exclusive economic zone near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, sources close to the talks said.
Under the deal, Japan and Taiwan will designate an area in Japan’s EEZ as jointly managed waters where fishing by both Japanese and Taiwanese boats will be allowed.
The jointly controlled zone excludes waters within a 12-nautical-mile (19-km) radius of the Japan-held Senkakus.
Waters where marine resources need protection and fishing requires regulation will be designated as a “special cooperation zone,” according to the deal.
To work out the specifics of the agreement, the two sides agreed to set up a joint fishing committee for further dialogue.
In the latest round, they left key issues unresolved, including fishing in waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands as well as waters near the Sakishima Islands of western Okinawa.
In addition, the agreement will set aside for the time being the two sides’ conflicting claims to sovereignty over the Senkakus.
The uninhabited Senkakus are also claimed by China, and sources said Tokyo compromised mainly to prevent Taiwan from forming a united front with China against Japan, realizing it has much to gain from mending fences with Taipei.
For Taiwan’s part, President Ma Ying-jeou needs a diplomatic breakthrough to boost his slumping popularity, making him more accepting of indeterminate language in the accord when it comes to which government has sovereignty over the Senkakus.
Without a deal, the risk of skirmishes between the two sides remained high. In September, Taiwanese fishermen organized a fleet of 70 fishing boats and sailed to the Senkakus, entering Japan’s territorial waters. This sparked an exchange of water cannon fire between Japan Coast Guard ships and Taiwanese patrol ships, described as a “water war” in Taiwan.
Japan insists its claim to the islets is indisputable and thus there exists no issue of territorial sovereignty, while Taiwan says the waters off the islets are its traditional fishing grounds.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Wednesday that Japan will maintain its stand that it holds sovereignty over the Senkakus, regardless of the fisheries deal.
“Our basic stance over the Senkaku Islands will not change. But we expect (the two parties) will make progress toward an agreement over the lingering issue between Japan and Taiwan,” Suga said.
He also said the government will do its utmost to protect the fishing rights of Okinawa-based fishermen.
Taiwan and Japan had held 16 rounds of negotiations since the fishery talks began in 1996, but none since February 2009 due to the territorial row.
They originally planned to reopen the 17th round of formal talks at the beginning of last October, but the plan was put on hold after the Japanese government announced the previous month it was purchasing part of the Senkakus from a private owner in Saitama and effectively placing the chain under state control. That move exacerbated the territorial dispute with Taiwan and China.
Japanese and Taiwanese officials met in Tokyo on March 13 — the second round of preparatory talks following the first in Tokyo last Nov. 30 — to prepare for formal talks, agreeing to speed up the process to reach an early accord.