Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.05.30

Japan-Taiwan Fisheries Agreement

On April 10, Japan and Taiwan signed a bilateral Fisheries Agreement. This is to be commended, as the agreement to manage joint operations of fisheries was concluded under somewhat difficult political circumstances insofar as China and Taiwan are both claiming territorial rights with respect to Japan's Senkaku Islands.

The agreement allows Taiwanese trawlers to operate in Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It also allows Japanese trawlers to operate in an EEZ claimed by Taiwan. In this case, not only Japan has made concessions.

Fishermen in Okinawa have been concerned about the illegal operations of Taiwanese trawlers. They have been asking that the Japanese authorities maintain order in the surrounding waters, securing the area so that they can operate safely, and arresting fishermen who operate illicitly. According to media sources, a Japanese government official commented that the agreement embodies about 80% of the desires of the Okinawan fishermen; however, fishermen from Kumeshima, who are close to the area where Taiwanese trawlers will be allowed to operate, may be dissatisfied. Protecting the interests of fishermen in Okinawa is necessary for the Japanese government.

At the same time, the government needs to pay heed to fishermen from Taiwan. They have been, for a long time, fishing among the Japanese fishermen in the area surrounding the Senkaku Islands. During storms, they would land on Uotsuri-shima. There was one incident when a Japanese had rescued them and the Consul of the Republic of Taiwan in Nagasaki then sent a letter of appreciation to the rescuers.

There is one other point to note about the recently-concluded agreement. Fishery consultations between Japan and Taiwan had started seventeen years ago. They had come to a halt after the last meeting, in February 2009, but resumed in the fall of last year. How were the two parties able to reach an agreement when the negotiations had stalled for such a long time, during which time the Senkaku Islands had become a hot issue? Needless to say, the Japanese side obviously was eager to resume talks.

President Ma Ying-jeou has asserted that he had to be mindful of the interests of Taiwan's fishermen in advance of the long line tuna fishing season. Tuna fishing, however, happens every year and this year is not any different. In the meantime, China was calling Taiwan to take concerted action regarding the Senkaku Islands. As for Taiwan's agreement with Japan, although it is limited to fisheries, China may view it as Taiwan taking action independent from China and may therefore apply pressure on hardliners in Taiwan. Although it is unlikely that Taiwan has actually changed its position on territorial issues as such, Taiwan should be lauded for its willingness find a pragmatic solution to the fisheries issue, regardless of the risk from the mainland China. President Ma has been a hardliner on the Senkaku Islands; however, he seems to be quite pragmatic, stating that resources can be shared, although sovereignty cannot be.

Japanese have been very grateful for the large amounts donated by Taiwan to aid victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake. In the past, however, Japan's expressions of appreciation for such support had been inappropriate. Upon the recent second anniversary of the earthquake, Japan did properly express its appreciation to the government and the people of Taiwan. This was reported in Taiwan and, as a result, pro-Japanese sentiment in Taiwan may have strengthened.

As for relations with China, it is suggested that the Japanese side had adopted a strategy to try to sever what had been the joint efforts of China and Taiwan regarding the Senkaku issue by separating the fisheries and territorial issues in its dealings with Taiwan. This was said to indicate Japan's understanding for Taiwan's situation. Regardless of the veracity of this claim, at least as far as the agreement is concerned, it is meaningful as a possible model for coolly solving an issue even when the two parties are at logger heads politically.

On April 12, during his regular press conference, the spokesperson of China's Foreign Ministry, Hon Lei, declared China's position by asserting that "the Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands are China's inherent territory. As for the fishery issue between China and Japan, the two countries signed a fishery agreement as early as in 1997. China opposes Japan's unilateral actions in relevant waters and urges Japan to properly deal with Taiwan-related issues in strict accordance with the principles and spirit of the China-Japan Joint Statement."

The statement is interpreted as an expression of dissatisfaction by China, but the protest does not seem very strong. China cannot take action that would be contrary to the interests of fishermen from Taiwan. As a result of the agreement, the area in which fishing boats of both Japan and Taiwan can operate (i.e., an area exempt from the laws of Japan) is very similar to the area in the 1997 fishery agreement between Japan and China, with the only difference being in their latitudes. This means that for the area north of 27 degrees North, both Japan and China have made concessions, while south of this latitude Japan and Taiwan have made concessions, allowing their respective fishing boats to operate. In this context, one can say that the Japan-Taiwan Fisheries Agreement was based on the Japan-China Fisheries Agreement.

Fishing issues are very complicated, and the agreement does not address all circumstances that could negatively affect the interests of fishermen. It is possible, for example, that not only fishing boats from Japan, China and Taiwan, but also those from South Korea might operate in the area. All parties should strive to maintain safe and orderly fishing in the East China Sea.