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TAIPEI – When mainland Chinese government officials or state media proclaim that this and that ”hurts the feeling of the Chinese people” they mean that the motherland has been seriously wronged. Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou has never stood among those accused of trampling on China’s sensitivities, but this changed on April 10.
He stabbed Beijing in the back by signing a fishery agreement with Taiwan’s former colonial master and China’s arch-rival Japan, allowing Taiwan’s fishermen to ply their trade in waters around the hotly disputed Senkaku / Diaoyu islands – referred to in Taiwan as the Diaoyutai – which are administered by Japan but are subject to competing claims by China and Taiwan.
”Taiwan should consider mainland’s feelings on Diaoyu” headlined the mainland’s state-run Global Times. Referring to statements by Taiwan coastguard head Wang Jinn-wang, who made the shock announcement that the Taiwanese would expel mainland Chinese boats from areas Taiwan and Japan now jointly control, it read that ”they obviously neglected the mainland’s feelings”.
In 1996, Japan enacted its Law on the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf, claiming an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) covering the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands. From then on, Taiwanese fishing boats were chased away and occasionally boarded and impounded.
Japan and Taiwan had 16 talks over the matter that went nowhere, and the resulting Taipei-Tokyo spat reached its climax last September when Japanese and Taiwanese coastguard vessels engaged in a high-profile water cannon duel. The island dispute simultaneously led to a much graver deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations, bringing the two Asian powerhouses to the brink of war.
Chinese officials passionately urged the Ma government to form a united front against the Japanese, but Ma said that this is not to happen. Instead, he flashed his East China Sea Peace Initiative, which calls for the shelving of the territorial dispute and resource sharing.
”It’s a diplomatic victory for Ma. It’s also a strategic victory for Japan, as it for now stops Taipei from teaming up with Beijing against it on the Senkakus,” Sean King, vice president of Park Strategies, a US lobbying firm until recently hired by the Taiwanese government, told Asia Times Online. ”And it must drive Beijing crazy seeing Japan’s national flag and Taipei’s Republic of China flag side-by-side on the signing table for all the world’s TV cameras to see.”
By expressing ”extreme” concern, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei made clear that the pact is indeed seen by Beijing as a gross Japanese violation of the one-China principle. According to that principle, there is no such a thing as Taiwan’s Republic of China, let alone Taiwanese diplomats signing pacts with outside nations.
The ”authorized government portal site to China”, China.org.cn, was clearer:
The signing of the fishery pact came after China made strong protests on March 11 over violations of the one-China policy related to Tokyo’s commemoration of the devastating 2011 earthquake. During the ceremony to mark the second anniversary of Japan’s major earthquake and tsunami in 2011, Tokyo arranged that personnel from Taiwan would be part of a ‘diplomatic delegation’.
In practical terms, the fishery agreement expands Taiwan’s fisheries by 4,530 square kilometers, while everything within the 12 nautical miles zone around the Senkakus/ Diaoyu islands stays off-limit to the Taiwanese. The deal coincides with the beginning of the lucrative blue fin tuna season, and the waters are also rich in yellowfin tuna, sailfish, bonito, sharks and dolphinfish (the latter are fish, not dolphin).
According to some Taiwanese accounts, Taiwanese fishermen could annually catch an extra 40,000 tonnes at a value of NT$200 billion (US$6.7 billion).
”Whether there will be such spectacular outcome remains to be seen, but fact is that Taiwan’s own coastal fisheries are depleted,” said Du Yu, a Taiwanese expert of fishery and agriculture with the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform. While Taiwan has the world’s highest density of fishing ports, many of them are abandoned due to the lack of stock in coastal waters, he said.
That Taiwan’s fishermen can now hope for another heyday is something they can give Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe particular credit for. Abe has always been anathema to the Chinese, mainly because he appears to think that Japan should harbor few, if any, guilty feelings about its World War II atrocities against China.
Past visits to Taipei, during which Abe held speeches at pro-Taiwanese independence symposiums, have shown that the Japan he governs does not wish unification between its former colony and China, and by granting Taiwan generous fishery concessions, he is now succeeding in driving a wedge between the two.
Abe has obviously found it easy to exploit the weak domestic standing of President Ma, whose approval ratings hover around the dismal 13% mark. Ma is reeling from high-profile corruption scandals involving two of his closest aides, but the signing of the Taiwan-Japan fishery agreement gives him a much needed boost in public approval, as indicated by the matter that he got the thumbs up from all Taiwanese news outlets across the political specter.
And Abe and Ma have jointly exploited that on April 10 the entire world looked at the misdeeds of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and not at the East China Sea’s disputed islands.
”Nice move by Ma. Shrewd one by Abe,” said King.
There may be a price for hurting Beijing’s feelings. After all, it took 17 rounds of talks for the Taiwan-Japan pact to come into being, and the Japanese did not concede a single fish to the Taiwanese in the first 16. Obviously, it wasn’t Ma’s East China Sea Peace Initiative that made the Japanese feel generous but Beijing relentlessly challenging them.
Wu Yu-Shan, director of Academia Sinica’s Institute of Political Science, said: ”Taiwan has gained quite significantly by playing pivot between Beijing and Tokyo, a classical situation in a strategic triangle where the pivot invites the two ‘wings’ to court it with concessions. The pivot tilts alternatively between the two wings, arousing jealousy and prompting actions. No one wants to play wing, so that resentment towards the pivot is inevitable.”
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
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