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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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,
"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.
would have been incredibly careless for the
government of Japan not to have thought of this
likely reaction from Beijing."
Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
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