TAIPEI – Taipei is stepping up diplomatic efforts to clarify its position on Okinotorishima Island, the southernmost point of Japanese territory, after a Taiwanese fishing boat and its crew were detained by the Japan Coast Guard for fishing in adjacent waters.
Tsai Ming-yaw, secretary-general of the Association of East Asian Relations — an agency linked to Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry which handles ties with Japan in the absence of formal diplomatic relations — said Thursday those efforts include having Taiwan’s representative to Japan, Shen Ssu-tsun, speak with Tadashi Imai, the president of Japan’s Interchange Association in Tokyo.
Tsai said Foreign Minister David Lin met with Japan’s representative to Taiwan, Mikio Numata, on Friday morning to convey Taiwan’s position.
President Ma Ying-jeou ordered the ministry to act after chairing two National Security Council meetings after the incident. At the meetings, he declared that Taiwan does not recognize Japan’s self-declared exclusive economic zone around Okinotorishima because it violates the Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Ma instructed all government agencies to henceforth refer to Okinotorishima as “rocks,” not as an island, because its land features “cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own.”
That distinction would disqualify Okinotorishima from entitlement to a 200-nautical-mile EEZ under the 1982 convention, reducing Japan’s maritime territory greatly. The minuscule Okinotorishima atolls are barely visible at high tide, which has prompted Japan to artificially build them up to keep the waves at bay.
The outgoing president instructed the Foreign Ministry and Taiwan’s representative office in Japan to convey that position to Tokyo and asked the ministry to study the possibility of seeking a resolution to the issue “through alternative international means.”
The Coast Guard Administration and Council of Agriculture were tasked with mapping out concrete plans on how to protect Taiwanese fishing boats in the area to ensure their right to fish in the open sea.
Tsai cautioned that until the dispute is settled, Taiwanese fishermen run certain risks when fishing in the area.
“We hope both sides can find a way that everybody finds satisfactory, so the issue can be resolved peacefully and rationally,” he said, urging both sides to exercise self-restraint.
Tsai emphasized that while the ministry’s ultimate goal is to protect Taiwanese fishermen’s rights and Taiwan’s interests, it hopes the politically sensitive issue will not affect bilateral relations.
He said he is uncertain whether Japan will agree to discuss the issue with the Democratic Progressive Party administration, which will take the reins of power from Ma’s Kuomintang administration on May 20.
Former premier and DPP founding member Frank Hsieh, who has been tapped as Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to Japan, said Tuesday he hopes the issue can be properly dealt with under a bilateral fisheries pact signed in April 2013, when Japan was being castigated by China and Taiwan after effectively nationalizing the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by Beijing and Taipei.
In Tokyo on Thursday, Japan repeated its stance that Okinotorishima is an island, not rocks as Taiwan claims, and lodged a protest against Ma’s administration for not recognizing Japan’s self-declared EEZ in the area.
“Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, (Okinotorishima’s) status as an island is established. Japan cannot accept the Taiwanese side’s claims,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters.