• Kyodo

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Japan and Taiwan signed a memorandum of understanding Wednesday to enhance cooperation over search and rescue at sea but failed to settle a dispute concerning fishing around Okinotori Island, regarded by Japan as its southernmost territory.

In the absence of diplomatic ties, the agreement was signed by Taiwan-Japan Relations President Chiou I-jen and his Japanese counterpart, Mitsuo Ohashi, chairman of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, at the Grand Hotel in Taipei.

During a two-day meeting that concluded Wednesday, the two sides discussed protection of maritime resources, maritime scientific research and maritime emergency rescue.

It was the second round of maritime talks launched after a Taiwanese fishing boat and its crew were detained in April 2016 by Japanese authorities for fishing in Japan’s self-declared exclusive economic zone around Okinotori Island, an uninhabited atoll located in the Philippine Sea about 1,700 km south of Tokyo and 1,560 km east of Taipei.

The boat and its crew were released a few days later after the payment of a fine. Taiwan believes its fishermen should be allowed to fish in the area, which it considers international waters.

Japan claims the atoll is significant enough to justify Japan declaring a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone around it. But Taiwan, as well as China and South Korea, dispute the EEZ, arguing the atoll does not meet the definition of an island under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

During the first round of talks, held on Oct. 31 last year, Taiwan and Japan agreed to meet at least once a year and to establish two working groups — one on fishery cooperation and another on scientific research cooperation.

Ohashi praised the agreement for search and rescue, saying it “signifies the spirit of trust and aid between Japan and Taiwan.”

Despite the lack of diplomatic ties, Ohashi said bilateral ties have remained robust and that the two sides have inked five deals since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in May last year.

The biggest take-away of the two-day meeting, Chiou said, was that both sides were facing problems with a flexible attitude, civilized manner and mutual trust.

Taiwan-Japan Relations Association Secretary-General Chang Shu-ling told a news conference that the Tsai administration “does not hold any specific position” on the status of Okinotori, and that it is up to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to decide whether it qualifies as an island.

Taiwanese Fisheries Agency Deputy Director-General Huang Hung-yan said the two sides agreed to continue dialogue, and to start by improving cooperation in areas like search and rescue before gradually moving onto more difficult matters in a flexible and practical fashion.

Hopefully, he said, there will be a breakthrough before the fishing season begins next year. But until then, he added, fishing near Okinotori is still a high-risk activity.

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