Relations between Japan and Taiwan have the potential to reach new heights since the election of Tsai Ing-wen as president earlier this year. Tsai’s landmark victory in January catapulted her Democratic Progressive Party into power and curbed decades of political monopoly by the nationalist Kuomintang. Tsai’s tenure has also resulted in a regression of cross-strait ties, as Beijing remains wary of Tsai’s pro-independence support base.
Meanwhile, ties with Tokyo have reached a critical juncture. Taipei is looking at improved ties with Japan as a strategic lever in its triangular relationship between Beijing and Washington — its security guarantor. Indeed, Tsai has long held favorable views of Japan and made a controversial trip to Tokyo a few months before her election. The trip ruffled feathers in Beijing and was the first time that an opposition leader visited Japan. This also caused concern in Beijing that Tsai was looking at wooing Japan and perhaps was prepared to shelve Taipei’s claim to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea — also claimed by China.
Now that Tsai has assumed power in Taiwan, she has taken a more balanced and pragmatic approach. Tsai has surrounded herself with some key Japan-hands such as Frank Hsieh and Chiou I-jen, but has thus far proceeded with caution. However, while not wanting to overtly provoke Beijing, Tsai rightly sees the value of a stronger relationship with Japan and has been looking for avenues to make a strategic play.
One of the more significant developments in the relationship is the potential coalescence between Tokyo and Taipei on maritime security issues. Last month, Tsai made her pitch in an interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun for Japan and Taiwan to engage in strategic dialogue on maritime security issues, covering a number of lingering issues including fishing rights and resources, and potential cooperation in areas such as search and rescue. Tsai remarked at the time that Japan and Taiwan have “shared interests and benefits” in deepening their dialogue on maritime issues.
Maritime cooperation between Taipei and Tokyo continues despite sensitivities. Tsai’s call for a strategic dialogue follows on the heels of the decision earlier this summer rendered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, to award the tribunal ruling to the Philippines in its dispute with China over the latter’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. Beijing responded by denouncing the ruling as a “waste of paper.” Taipei also criticized the decision, which declared that Itu Aba — administered by Taiwan — was not an island and therefore did not have legal standing as such, including the right to an 200-nautical-mile economic exclusive zone (EEZ).
Taipei’s vocal condemnation proved for bad optics, as it appeared on the surface that Taiwan and Beijing were on the same side. In reality, Taipei had little political wiggle room, as Itu Aba — the largest developed maritime feature in the South China Sea — is its sole point of leverage in the dispute. But aside from Taiwan’s critique of the ruling, there lies a silver lining: The award’s definitions regarding maritime features almost certainly upends the legal founding of other countries’ expansive EEZ claims. Of particular interest is Japan’s claim to Okinotorishima — a largely submerged atoll in the Philippine Sea on which Tokyo has built a radar station.
Taiwan — along with other regional countries such as China and South Korea — have questioned the legal basis of Japan’s claim to an EEZ around Okinotorishima. Taipei and Tokyo meanwhile have squared off numerous times on the issue — especially with regard to fishing rights. Earlier this year, a Taiwanese fishing crew was arrested by the Japan Coast Guard for illegal fishing in the EEZ — an incident vigorously protested by Taipei. The Hague decision thus is a mixed bag for Taiwan and offers it some leverage along with the strategic loss on Itu Aba’s status. It is an opportune time for Taiwan and Japan to engage on maritime issues and work toward a mutually acceptable resolution on Okinotorishima and fishing disputes. Both sides can point to their landmark deal in the East China Sea, signed in 2013, as a starting point.
Japan is unlikely to surrender its claim that Okinotorishima is an islet, and thus deserving of an EEZ. But, through engaging in a maritime dialogue with Taiwan, there can be meaningful discussions on the practical means to mitigate tensions and find a mutually beneficial agreement on fishing rights. Such a dialogue would hold benefits to both sides as Taiwan could gain traction on its economic interests and also draw a closer strategic relationship with Japan — as a means to both levy pressure on China but also insert itself more into discussions of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
Tokyo meanwhile would be able to proactively stave off any potential future protests from Taiwan on Okinotorishima’s status. Japan also has an interest — although it needs to be very delicate with its approach — in gradually building up its relationship with Taiwan, in light of China’s increasingly adversarial posture in the maritime domain.
J. Berkshire Miller is an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations and is a fellow on East Asia for the EastWest Institute.