TAIPEI – Government officials met Friday with fishermen in Yilan County on Taiwan’s northeast coast to explain the extended fishing access they’ve been granted by the landmark fisheries agreement Taiwan signed with Japan.
Japan and Taiwan inked the deal on April 10, ending a decades-long dispute over fishing rights in the East China Sea near waters rich with fish and potential deposits of oil and gas.
The bilateral fisheries pact allows Taiwanese trawlers to operate in part of Japan’s exclusive economic zone near the Senkaku Islands, which are claimed as the Tiaoyutai in Taiwan and Diaoyu in China.
Both sides agreed to set up a joint fishing committee to continue negotiations on lingering disagreement, including fishing in other waters surrounding the Senkakus as well as near the Yaeyama Islands in the southernmost part of the Ryukyu Archipelago.
The new pact establishes a platform for handling fisheries issues between Taiwan and Japan and sets a precedent for other talks between the two governments, which share close economic and cultural relations despite the absence of official diplomatic ties.
In terms of who got what in the agreement, Taiwan is seen as the biggest winner. For Taiwan’s fishermen, the gains include larger areas to fish in and the end of harassment by the Japan Coast Guard.
With an additional 4,530 sq. km of waters to use, it is estimated that some 800 Taiwanese fishing boats in the areas will pull 40,000 tons of fish out of the once-disputed waters each year.
Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, whose approval rating has been hovering around 15 percent since he was re-elected last year to a second four-year term, also gained from the deal.
The diplomatic breakthrough will give his popularity a boost, even though the pact required him to accept language that avoided asserting Taiwan’s claim over the islands.
In Taiwan’s view, the signing of the fisheries deal subtly reminds the international community that it is a sovereign state and that it has no desire to forge a united front with mainland China against Japan on the Senkaku issue.
Japan also gained significantly from the deal. By allowing Taiwanese fishing trawlers to operate in part of its declared exclusive economic zone around the Senkakus, it retains control over contested waters and its claim to sovereignty over the islands remains intact.
By making the compromise, Japan also spares itself the trouble of having to deal with Taiwanese fishermen who insist on their right to fish in the area in question and attempt occasional forays to the Senkakus to protest. Some of them said they would have happily joined their Chinese counterparts in confronting Japan if the deal had not been signed.
Of course, Tokyo now has to deal with the disgruntled fishermen of Okinawa Prefecture are protesting because it doesn’t take their interests into account.
Yet if Taiwan and Japan both have reasons to celebrate, China does not.
For Beijing, which was largely ignored in the negotiations, the agreement marks a not insignificant boost to Taiwan’s claim to sovereignty before the international community, something China has long rejected. It views the self-ruled island as a breakaway province.
On the other hand, Beijing is worried about Tokyo’s strategic shift.
Tokyo, which had been reluctant to talk to Taiwan about trawling rights in the East China Sea, showed a willingness to compromise to protect its claim to the Senkaku Islands.
China’s anti-Japanese protests, boycotts and increased maritime assertiveness in recent years have failed to force Japan to submit and instead driven it closer to Taiwan.
It seems Beijing now has very few cards to play.
Instead of chastising Taipei for signing the fishery pact with Tokyo, Beijing appealed to it to jointly protect the interests of fishermen from both sides of the Taiwan Strait on the basis of defending Chinese sovereignty over the Senkakus.
To Tokyo, Beijing expressed its “grave concern,” urging it to uphold the “one China” policy and handle Taiwan-related issues properly and prudently according to the principles laid out in the 1972 China-Japan Joint Communique.
In the communique, Japan recognized the government in Beijing as the sole legal government of China and stated that it “fully understands and respects” China’s stand that Taiwan is part of China.
Acting more aggressively toward Japan is not the best option and will only make China look bad, analysts say.
“If Japan and Taiwan can come to a compromise, they may be able to cast the mainland as the unreasonable party standing in the way of resolution, thus winning international support,” said commentator David Cohen.
So what’s next? Only time will tell what China’s next move will be.
But what remains clear is that both Taiwan and Japan are willing to compromise and settle their dispute peacefully. The question remains: Will Beijing do the same?