Taiwan's temporary enforcement line

Taiwan’s temporary enforcement line (Source: China Post)

Japan and Taiwan have signed a ground-breaking agreement on fishing rights that leaves China isolated in the territorial dispute over Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands. According to Taipei Times, major elements of the agreement are:

  • intervention-free fishing zone for Taiwanese fishing boats in waters between 27° north latitude and the Sakishima Islands, Okinawa Prefecture;
  • furthermore, Taiwan is given an additional fishing zone of 4,800 square km outside Taiwan’s temporary enforcement line (see red dotted line on the photo);
  • fishermen from both countries can operate in a large area within the designated zone without being subject to the jurisdiction of the other side;
  • smaller area of the zone, where Japanese fishing vessels frequently operate, is under joint management by the two governments;
  • provisions under the agreement do not apply to waters within 12 nautical miles (i.e. territorial waters) surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands;
  • last but not least, Article 4 of the agreement states that agreed conditions have no effect on each side’s sovereignty claims over the islands.

This truly seems to be a major breakthrough. Although the agreement has not been concluded out of the blue and progress was reported at the end of March, the pace of how last round of talks resulted in agreement is rather surprising considering that resumption of talks that were stalled since 2009. What were the major incentives for Taipei and Tokyo to move forward?

From Taiwan’s perspective, reaching a deal on fishing rights is the optimal result.  Taiwan does not have physical control over the islands and has limited means and thus basically no reason to try and acquire physical control. Domestic public opinion does not allow for a strong anti-Japanese stance and Taiwanese are little interested in territorial nationalism. Thus, fishing rights are the only issue that the public really cares about and this is well reflected by politicians, both from ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who face major elections every two years. Naturally, Taiwan needs to consider China’s position and it is clear that Beijing won’t take this deal lightly. Yet, Ma’s administration clearly believes that it would be able to maneuver through Chinese anger. It is a dilemma for Taipei but at this point Tokyo simply delivers something tangible that Ma Ying-jeou would be able to claim as a success at point, especially given his approval rating has sunk to a staggering 13%. Aligning itself to China, an option that Ma himself recently strongly rejected, is politically risky and cannot possibly deliver tangible results for Taiwan as Beijing does not have control over the area.

It appears that that Japan is the giving side here. Yet, it is not a bad deal for Tokyo for a couple of reasons. First, Japan has been concerned with the increased activity of Chinese law-enforcement vessels in close proximity to the Senkaku Islands as part of Beijing’s clear attempt to alter the status quo in its favor. From Tokyo’s perspective, removing Taipei as a claimant allows it to focus fully on China. Second, the dispute is an unnecessary spoiler of otherwise good relations between Taiwan and Japan. Third, the deal effectively isolates Beijing. Taiwan now has an agreement that safeguards its fishing interests, and despite the provisions of Article 4, we should expect Taiwan to be much less vocal about its sovereignty claims. It would be interesting to see what the role of Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe was in facilitating the agreement. Given that talks have been stalled for so long before he was elected, it is plausible that he pushed for more conciliatory stance towards Taipei.

To sum up, both Japan and Taiwan and its respective leaders had strong domestic and foreign policy incentives to reach the agreement at this given moment.

Obviously, Beijing will not be very excited with the agreement. The Taipei Times article quotes a China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson as saying: “We are extremely concerned about Japan and Taiwan discussing and signing a fishing agreement,” and “We hope that Japan earnestly abides by its promises on the Taiwan issue and acts cautiously and appropriately.” However, China’s options are not limitless. It cannot push too hard against Taiwan because that could only result in a negative reaction which could hamper the more Beijing-friendly KMT’s chances of winning elections in 2016. Similarly, too strong action against Japan – China’s major trading partner – is not likely to produce any results. Trade relations between Beijing and Tokyo are governed by WTO rules, thus limiting the scope of economic punitive measures. In addition, Shinzo Abe is not exactly a person who is likely to yield to Chinese pressure. Article 4 of the agreement further helps both sides to argue that they have not made any territorial concessions, a face saving formula especially for Taipei.

Taiwan-Japan Agreement map

Taiwan-Japan Agreement map (Source: Taipei Times)

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Michal Thim is Taiwan Studies PhD candidate at University of Nottingham and concurrently research fellow at Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs (AMO). His research interest mainly focuses on foreign, defence and security policy of Taiwan, territorial disputes in South and East China Seas, foreign policy of China, and the role of the USA in East Asia. His PhD research deals with Taiwan’s defence and asymmetrical defence strategies. He owns blog Taiwan in Perspective, follow him at @michalthim.
Michal Thim has 2 post(s) on Japan Security Watch