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Caught between Japan and China, Taiwan seeks fishing rights
Taiwan often seems the odd man out In the lingering spat over the disputed Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, even though in late September Taiwanese and Japanese coast guard vessels battled with water cannons. Few, if any, Taiwanese still believe that the Republic of China will ever gain the upper hand in the bitter trilateral sovereignty dispute over the islands, which are controlled by Japan but subject to competing claims by both China and Taiwan.
Japan, driven by concerns that the two Chinas may make common cause over the islands, has begun overtures to Taiwan in terms of favorable fishing rights within the Japanese 200 mile (370 km) exclusive economic zone around the islands. But analysts say a favorable deal is increasingly unlikely because Taiwanese unpreparedness puts the island’s fishermen in an unfavorable negotiating posture.
Indeed, the sea clash between the 50-odd Taiwanese fishing boats that tried to intrude into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, shielded by 12 Taiwan coast guard cutters, occurred at a time when word was spreading that Tokyo was considering granting fishing rights to Taiwanese fishermen in Japan’s EEZ in an attempt to neutralize Taiwan in the trilateral sovereignty dispute.
Presumably the Taiwanese fishing associations mobilized the trip to the Diaoyus nonetheless, believing that increased pressure on Tokyo at this stage would enhance their chances to again be able to fish in the waters surrounding the islands. They did so with impunity until 1996, when Japan enacted its Law on the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf, claiming an exclusive zone.
As the waters in question are said to be about the richest in the region and the heyday of Taiwanese coastal fisheries has long passed due to depletion, the matter is very pressing from the perspective of the fishermen and their affiliated electoral constituency.
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There is an element of political manipulation to the episode. In the weeks before Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou ordered the coast guard to take on their Japanese counterparts surprisingly vigorously (although the Taipei Times compared the Taiwanese water jets to “urine” as opposed to Japan’s, which were described as “flat, strong and powerful”), his approval ratings stood somewhere around a dismal 17 percent. His government has been under fire from all sides over planned electricity rate increases, his premier has just survived a no-confidence vote, one of his ministers was about to resign in tears, and the unemployment rate edged up to a relative high of 4.4 percent.
But after the Japanese government announced its decision to buy the Diaoyus, the usually soft-spoken Ma, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the issue, delivered uncharacteristically strong rhetoric and gestures, calling Tokyo’s move an “invasion” of ROC territory while shaking his fist as roaring fighter jets conducted martial fly-bys.
When the world’s news agencies then ran in loops the footage of the water cannon duel, the Taiwanese public did give a thumbs up for Ma. If only for a weekend, the clash put the Taiwanese, whose self-esteem has been gnawed profoundly thorough decades of China-imposed isolation, back onto the international stage.
However, the media overdrive has since come to an end and Ma’s rhetoric has been undergoing changes. Two days after the water cannon spectacle, he was caught on record saying “the best remedy [for the Japanese government] is to talk with Taiwan on how not to interfere with Taiwanese fishermen in waters near the Diaoyutai Islands.”
Ever since the Japanese enforced their EEZ around the Diaoyus, they have expelled Taiwanese fishing boats, or boarded and impounded them, often making them pay huge fines. To counter the collateral damage this caused to ties to a near de-facto ally, Tokyo agreed on Taiwan-Japan negotiations over fisheries. The two sides have held 16 rounds of talks, the last one in 2009, but have failed to reach a common understanding, apparently because neither the Japanese government and Japanese fishermen felt an urgent need to compromise.
However, after China went berserk over the Japanese “nationalization” of the islands, there were concerns that the Beijing-friendly Ma Administration might want to team up with China against Japan, Thus Tokyo has begun working at full steam to neutralize Taipei. To get on better terms with Ma, the Japanese state-owned NHK, in an unusual move given Taiwan’s isolation, conducted an elaborate interview with Ma, effectively supplying him with ammunition for his embattled domestic standing.
The Japanese government also began showing a willingness to negotiate with Taiwan about fishing rights. To break the ice, the Japan-based president of Tokyo’s de facto embassy to Taiwan, Tadashi Imai, rushed to Taipei. At the top of his agenda were reportedly preparations for the speedy resumption of bilateral fishery talks. However, raising the stakes, the Ma Administration let him leave empty-handed and obviously slightly humiliated.
Nonetheless, a steady stream of overtures in Taipei’s direction is almost certain to follow. There is considerable domestic pressure on Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to make concessions to the Taiwanese. More than 500 Japanese figures from various sectors of society have since issued a statement reminding Noda that the Diaoyus “have been traditional fishing grounds for people in Taiwan and Okinawa Prefecture.”
As all signs are that Tokyo will eventually offer the Ma Administration some face-saving goodies, Taiwan’s fishery experts have been racking their brains how to get the most out of it once the Taipei-Tokyo fishery talks resume. But Du Yu, a Taiwanese fishery and agriculture expert and chief executive officer of the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform, told Asia Sentinel what’s likely in store for the Taiwanese negotiators. Their Japanese counterparts, he says will be head and shoulders above them.
“In fishery talks, negotiators are supposed to support their claims with the area’s long-term scientific data, which Taiwan clearly doesn’t have in the case of the Diaoyus,” Du Yu said.
Statistics on fish stocks, mineral distribution and changes to hydrology, which covers temperatures, currents, etc, are inadequate, he says, adding that Taipei can’t even say how many of its fishing boats have plied the area in the past, let alone what tonnage and kinds of fish they have caught at certain times.
“But it is this kind of data that is all-important for deciding future fishing quotas,” Du Yu said, adding that because the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that the rightful owner of an EEZ is not only permitted to exploit the area but has the responsibility to enforce its conservation, Taiwan’s unpreparedness is bound to bring have negative repercussions.
But Taiwanese fishermen have even more reasons to be pessimistic, he said. As opposed to Japan, which will send specifically trained negotiators, it is a decisively different matter with Taiwan. “Here, the government only temporarily recruits such people from local academia case by case,” he said.
Taipei must not be so naïve to expect that holding talks with Tokyo will be as a child’s play that talks with Beijing have been over the landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) Taipei and Beijing signed in 2010.
“The Japan-Taiwan fishery talks isn’t ECFA, where one side [China] simply gave the other [Taiwan] everything it asked for. It will be a real wrestling, and such data Taiwan failed to collect but Japan certainly all has together is a crucial tool to negotiate trade-offs,” he said.
Hu Sheng-Cheng, an economist at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s most prestigious think tank, added that on top of all this, Taipei is also pressed for time. This is because it is highly questionable whether China – which regards Taiwan as a renegade province that not supposed having an independent foreign policy – would like seeing meaningful fishery talks resume between its arch rival Japan and Taiwan.
“Taiwan and Japan will speed for a win-win situation but as soon as China intervenes, things will get hugely complex,” Hu said.