TAIPEI – Japan and Taiwan recently reopened fishery talks stalled in February 2009 due to rising tensions over control of the Senkaku Islands.
Known as Tiaoyutai in Taiwan and Diaoyu in China, disputes over sovereignty over the Japan-held islets, the potential oil reserves beneath them and the danger of military confrontation in the East China Sea have overshadowed discussion of fishing rights in the region.
Communities in Yilan County on Taiwan’s northeast coast pull 80,000 tons of fish from the waters around the Senkakus each year, accounting for approximately 7 percent of the country’s total catch.
These fish represent the main source of income for Taiwanese men and woman who have long made their living in the area and have found it increasingly difficult to do so in recent years.
After leading a flotilla of fishing boats to assert trawling rights around the contested islands in September, Chen Chun-sheng, director of the Suao Fishermen’s Association, said years of harassment by the Japan Coast Guard have left them little choice but to take matters into their own hands.
This human element behind the decision to renew fisheries talks suggests a new stage in the dispute over the Senkakus.
Concern for the plight of Taiwanese fishermen represents an olive branch of sorts between Japan and Taiwan as a means to renew trust by setting aside more contentious issues and focusing on what they can agree upon.
Geopolitically, Japan and Taiwan have much to gain from mending fences, with both leery of Chinese aggression in the region — and many fishermen agree.
While Beijing has been courting Taiwan to forge a united front against Tokyo, Chen said he favors cooperation with Japan.
“We are good friends, and a majority of Taiwanese fishermen have no problem seeing the Japanese continue to manage the Tiaoyutais,” he said. “As long as they let us fish.”
Likening the relationship between Taiwan and the Tiaoyutai Islands to a marriage, Chen said, “Everybody knows she is my wife, but I cannot prove it because we didn’t register.”
Chen said Taiwanese fishermen could go to the Tiaoyutai Islands to fish or collect bird eggs years ago, but things began to change in 1972 when the United States handed over to Japan the trusteeship of Okinawa, of which the Senkakus had been a part since 1895.
The disputes between Taiwan, Japan and China in the contested waters are nothing new.
Situated 210 km northeast of Taipei and 1,800 km from Tokyo, the Senkaku Islands were a no-man’s land for centuries.
Taiwan and China began to claim the uninhabited islets in the 1970s after studies indicated the contested waters may be potentially rich with oil and gas reserves, setting off a territorial dispute between Japan, China and Taiwan.
Japan insists that its claim to the islets is indisputable and that there exists no issue of territorial sovereignty over them. After Japan took control of the islets, a Japanese fish-processing operation was established on them.
China argues that historical records show it discovered the islets back during the Ming Dynasty, and because the islands were administered by Taiwan, which it considers part of its territory, the islets belong to China.
Taiwan contends the waters off the islets are traditional fishing grounds of Taiwanese fishermen and the isles were not terra nullius but Taiwan’s affiliate islands placed under Yilan County’s administration when the Japanese “stole” them in 1895.
Although Japan tacitly allowed Taiwanese fishing boats access to its contiguous zone, they were sometimes expelled, detained or fined.
Things got worse in September when the Japanese government purchased three of the islets from a Saitama businessman who held title to them.
Seeking to resolve the long-running dispute, President Ma Ying-jeou proposed an initiative for a peaceful settlement and joint development of the resources of the East China Sea.