Japan and Taiwan recently concluded a pact over fishery rights in the disputed Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea on April 11, 2013. This pact is an important development and indirectly underlines the fact that Taiwan is an independent actor in the territorial dispute over the islands regardless of its sharing historical basis and claims with the mainland China and, more importantly, despite diplomatic isolation. Notwithstanding bypassing the issue of sovereignty to ward off China’s opposition this pact practically makes the dispute tripartite making Taiwan a legitimate party separate from the mainland China. It also conveys a subtle message that Taiwan is guarding its de facto sovereignty. Beijing may not view this pact very sympathetically. Considering the present unprecedented level of Cross-Strait economic integration, this pact may not have dramatic negative fallout on the Cross-Strait relations. Nevertheless, the pact may prompt China to take a fresh look at its assessment of Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, whose pursuit of normalization in the Cross-Strait relations has, rightly or wrongly, earned him an image of pro-China leader in the opposition circles in Taiwan and the international media.
The gist of this pact is that the Taiwanese fishermen would now be able to cast the net wider in a 74,300 sq km area (an increased area of 4,530 sq km) near the disputed Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands without being harassed by the Japanese coast guards. However, under the pact, they cannot enter within 12 nautical miles of the islands which form the territorial water of Japan, though the word territorial water has not been used in the pact as it denotes sovereignty. According to media reports, the increased area, which lies south of 27 degrees north latitude, will be jointly managed under the pact. President Ma has informed that Taiwan and Japan continue to discuss areas north of 27 degrees under a proposed Taiwan-Japan fisheries committee. The fishermen, particularly from New Taipei City, Keelung City and Yilan County in the northern and northeastern Taiwan, will benefit from this pact, which will take one month or so to come into force.1
China, in no uncertain terms, has expressed its disappointment over the development. On the eve of this agreement, the foreign ministry said that it was seriously concerned about a fishery agreement that Japan and Taiwan were close to signing. The spokesperson hoped that Japan would honor its commitment on the ‘Taiwan issue’ – referring to Japan’s commitment to ‘One-China policy’ under the China-Japan Joint Communiqué (1972).2 Japan has been reminded that treating Taiwan as a “country” under the pact contravenes its previous commitments.3 Incidentally, Japan recently commemorated the second anniversary of the Fukushima disaster by holding a national service. During this commemoration, Taiwanese representatives were seated in the designated area for diplomats. The Japanese explanation for this equal treatment was an acknowledgement of the “enormous support” Taiwan extended to Japan during the disaster. China opposed Taiwanese representatives sharing the diplomatic area as a violation of Japan’s One-China commitment under 1972 joint declaration. As a mark of protest, the Chinese ambassador did not attend the national service. The Chinese media equally has viewed the recent fishery pact as a turn around of Japan’s One-China policy.4 Reacting sharply, Global Times has taken exception to the statement by a Taiwanese official that “fishing boats that enter the waters off the Diaoyu Islands from outside Taiwan, including the Chinese mainland, would be expelled”. The newspaper claims that this statement has created anger in China, and urges Taiwan to show respect to the sentiments of the mainland.5
The Chinese disappointment should not be dismissed as routine. In the volatile waters of the East China Sea, this pact has strategic ramifications. To recollect, Japan and Taiwan fishery talks started in 1996 and since then the two sides have held 16 rounds of talks. In fact, Japan showed lack of enthusiasm to discuss this issue with Taiwan. The two sides finally clinched the issue in the 17th round. Recent Chinese displeasure and assertiveness seems to have forced Japan to rethink the role of Taiwan in this dispute. Japan felt uncomfortable to deal with the Mainland China and Taiwan on this issue simultaneously. The situation was apparently creating pressure on US-Japan-Taiwan relations. While Taiwan has officially dismissed the possibility of cooperation with China on the dispute and the Japanese media too downplays this possibility, circumstantial reading of the situation suggests that Taiwan may have used, in some form, threat of defection to China to secure this deal from Japan. Historically, Taiwan used this threat of defection to snatch security commitments from the US with considerable success in 1950s and 60s. On the other hand, the Taiwanese government was also under pressure from domestic constituencies to state its position vis-à-vis China. The Chinese coastguards’ unilateral extending protection to the Taiwanese fishing vessels was putting the Taiwanese government in a quandary. This difficult situation for the two sides prompted the deal.6
Rejecting China’s call for cooperation on the issue and concluding an agreement with Japan, Taiwan has clearly conveyed its priority of sovereignty and security. As of now, China appears to be conveying its displeasure more to Japan than Taiwan. Recently, in an idea exchange at the IDSA, Taiwanese scholars downplayed the implications of the fishery pact for the Cross-Strait relations. However, at the same time, they also dismissed the speculation whether Taipei consulted Beijing and sought its concurrence for the pact with Japan. One has to wait and watch whether the recent events in the East China Sea will put strains on the Cross-Strait normalization and economic integration initiated by Ma Ying-jeou. Cross-Strait relations might indeed be entering interesting times. President Ma has hailed this pact as a test case of his East China Sea Peace Initiative. Media reports, on the other hand, suggest that this pact has increased the international space of Taiwan.7 While Ma has some truth in what he says, any prediction about the increase of Taiwan’s international space might be a hurried conclusion. Nevertheless, what is beyond doubt is that the unfolding of events in the East China Sea offers an opportunity for Taiwan to reinvent itself and compel both China, on the one hand, and the US and Japan, on the other, to take Taiwan more seriously.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.