Tension is mounting between Taiwan and Japan over a fishing dispute. On Wednesday, nine Taiwanese fishing boats traveled to near the Diaoyutai cluster, approximately 130km northeast of Suao, to surround a Japanese patrol boat in protest. The two sides faced off for around an hour until Taiwan's coast guard intervened.
Yesterday the dispute was continuing with around 50 Taiwanese boats staging a protest in the area.
At the root of this dispute are the overlapping territorial claims of Taiwan and Japan. Most of the waters to Taiwan's east are claimed by Japan, and fishing boats from Taiwan are often expelled by Japanese patrol boats as soon as they enter the area.
The frustration of Taiwan's fishermen is understandable. Last month alone, Taiwanese fishing boats were expelled from the region five times. The Japanese government has repeatedly shown that it is prepared to adopt strongarm tactics to defend its interests.
Earlier this month, two officers with the Japanese coast guard boarded a South Korean fishing vessel to warn the boat away from waters over which Japan and South Korean are in dispute. The two Japanese officers were taken back to South Korea before being released by the South Korean government.
A few years ago, a Taiwanese fishing boat in disputed waters was chased by a Japanese patrol boat for an hour, during which the two vessels collided on at least six occasions. The fishing boat was finally stopped and the Taiwanese fisherman detained for more than three months by the Japanese government. They received a hefty fine and a jail term, but were released on probation.
These ocean pursuits and posturing are, of course, extremely dangerous. It is regrettable that Taiwanese fishermen, who are simply trying to make a living, must be placed in this kind of danger. It is even more regrettable that their campaign yesterday placed them in a situation that could get wildly out of control.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already lodged a protest with the Japanese government, and has requested that the two governments engage in a new round of negotiations relating to fishing problems. State-to-state negotiations through diplomatic channels are of course the preferred channel for dialogue and are in fact the only way to resolve disputes of this sort.
Japan remains a critically important ally. Both governments should resolve this issue in a rational and civilized manner. In particular, it should be pointed out that international law requires countries with overlapping territorial claims to negotiate. If Taiwan's government does not become more actively involved in dealing with the dispute and instead leaves it to the fishermen to handle, the problem will only worsen.
Taiwan has had fishing disputes with other countries in the past. However, the government's efforts to address this problem through political and diplomatic channels have more often than not led nowhere.
It is therefore high time for the government to demonstrate its determination and ability to protect the rights of its own citizens.