Taiwan angles for the big fish

For Asia Times www.atimes.com
By Jens Kastner

TAIPEI – More than 50 Taiwanese fishing boats escorted by 12 coastal patrol ships entered disputed waters in the East China Sea on Tuesday, triggering a brief exchange of water-cannon shots with Japan Coast Guard ships.

This was Taiwan’s first high-profile foray into the waters near the disputed uninhabited islands – called Diaoyutai in Taiwan, Diaoyu Islands in mainland China and Senkaku Islands in Japan – since the Japanese government bought them from their private owners two weeks ago to “nationalize” them. China, Taiwan and Japan all claim sovereignty over the islands, which are controlled by Japan.

By taking the high-profile action of sending 12 patrol ships to escort Taiwanese fishing boats into the disputed waters, analysts say, Taipei wants to remind the world that the Diaoyutai sovereignty dispute is trilateral, not a bilateral one between mainland China and Japan. Taiwanese fishermen themselves, however, may be more concerned with their fishing rights in the disputed waters, which have long been a source of friction between Taiwan and Japan.
The sea clash happened at a time when word was spreading that Japan was considering granting generous rights to Taiwanese fishermen in what it regards as its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), in an attempt to neutralize Taiwan in the bitter trilateral sovereignty dispute over the East China Sea islands.

Although it makes good strategic sense for the Taiwanese fishing associations to take a hard line against the Japan Coast Guard at this stage, since it makes it easier for Taipei to extract concessions from Tokyo, the fishermen might be better off not getting too excited yet. For the Japanese to grant them any preferential treatment would be a tricky maneuver.

“I have no idea how this is can be done. A special case will need to be made for Taiwanese fishermen to be given special access, which may require a change of the law,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute. He added that although the Japanese could finesse this, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou would just insist that since the islands are Taiwanese territory, the fishermen are entitled to fish there anyway.

Last Sunday in Taipei, about a thousand protesters led by non-government organizations such as the Chinese Association in Defense of the Diaoyutai Islands as well as two minor Taiwanese political parties marched on Japan’s de facto embassy there, demanding that Tokyo reverse its nationalization of the hotly disputed islands. While the demonstration was undoubtedly vociferous and very emotional, with some of the participants even waving mainland China’s five-star red flag, conspicuously absent was the interest group that arguably has the highest stake in the escalating situation.

Having definitely been invited but choosing not to show up were the fishermen associations from northern and eastern Taiwan, whose members are frequently expelled by the Japan Coast Guard from the waters around the Diaoyutais that are rich in fish. Instead of joining the street demonstrations in Taipei, the fishermen organized one of their own two days later by steering dozens of boats into the Japanese EEZ around the Diaoyutais, running their engines on diesel fuel that was reportedly donated by Tsai Eng-meng, a staunchly pro-Beijing Taiwanese industrial tycoon and media mogul.

Suggesting that what these fishermen – who come from an area that is traditionally Japan-friendly and opposed to unification with the mainland – had in mind was not so much sovereignty over the Diaoyutais or cross-strait cooperation to defend the islands, let alone a “fight against Japanese imperialism”, as mainland Chinese media and some pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong and Taiwan were quick to interpret it, but more pragmatic things, one leader of the Suao Fishing Association was quoted in the local press spelling out what they were really after. They “are going to the Diaoyutais so as to help the government put pressure on Japan in securing the fishing grounds”, he said.

Taiwanese agricultural and fishery experts say Japan is trying to dampen the Taiwanese backlash against its takeover of the Diaoyutais by offering cooperation in exploiting fishery resources around the islands. They also say that Taipei and Tokyo are just about to restart bilateral talks on fishing rights.

“Tokyo is not in direct talks with the Taiwanese fishing associations, as far as I know,” Du Yu, an expert on Taiwanese fishery issues and chief executive officer of the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform, told Asia Times Online. “But whether there is something going under the table between the two governments certainly deserves attention.”

He added that ever since in 1996, when Japan enacted its Law on the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf, claiming an EEZ extending 200 nautical miles from its baseline, the Japan Coast Guard has been expelling Taiwanese fishing boats from around the Diaoyutais, or even impounded them, often enough demanding huge fines.

“But the media question whether President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration can handle such negotiations so that Taiwan does not sacrifice its sovereignty over the islands,” Du Yu said.

Supporting the notion that Tokyo aims for such a grand deal that pacifies Taiwan, the Japan-based president of Tokyo’s de facto embassy in Taiwan, Tadashi Imai, headed to Taipei on Tuesday. On the very top of his agenda were reportedly preparations for the speedy resumption of bilateral talks on fishing rights. But the Ma administration, apparently seeking to make itself one head higher at the negotiation tables, very obviously gave Imai the cold shoulder, letting him return to Japan empty-handed this time.

Chen Ching Chang, a Taiwanese professor at Japan’s Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, agrees that Tokyo works at full steam to neutralize Taiwan amid the ongoing tension between Japan and mainland China.

Illustrating this, he pointed to measures the Japanese have already pulled out of their bag of tricks. For example, in August, Japan’s state-owned broadcaster NHK, in an unusual move given Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation, interviewed President Ma, on the one hand providing him with a platform to air Taiwan’s position on the East China Sea issue to the Japanese public, while on the other signaling Beijing that the Japanese could well choose to play the “Taiwan card” by accepting Taipei as an equal player in trilateral relations. The latter notion is a particularly unpleasant one to Beijing, as it regards Taiwan as a breakaway province of the People’s Republic of China that has no right whatsoever to pursue an independent foreign policy.

“Now Tokyo might even concede over fishing rights. Ma could claim political victory for getting Japan’s concessions through peaceful dialogues unlike the PRC’s muscle-flexing coercive diplomacy,” Chen said.

But Tsang pointed out that there were some weighty obstacles hidden in the details. He said it would be be very difficult to sort out how in concrete terms Japan would let Taiwan’s fishermen ply the waters of its EEZ, particularly if it were near the Diaoyutais only. And to offer the Taiwanese the right to fish in the entire EEZ of Japan would amount to too considerable a gift.

Either way, Beijing would be displeased, Tsang said.

“It may well take a similar line to Ma’s. They will add that this is for all Chinese fishermen and not just Taiwanese-Chinese. This in turn raises the prospect of further escalation of confrontation by many Chinese fishing boats going there,” he said.

“It would have been incredibly careless for the government of Japan not to have thought of this likely reaction from Beijing.”

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist. 

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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