Fri, Jun 20, 2008 - Page 8 News List

Diaoyutai spat needs a pragmatic solution

By Chiang Shih-hsiung 江世雄

The sinking of a Taiwanese fishing boat off the Diaoyutai (釣魚台) islands is a litmus test for the future development of relations between Taiwan and Japan. It also gives China a chance to reassert its claim of sovereignty over Taiwan and the Diaoyutai islands.

After the incident, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) reiterated that the Diaoyutais are part of Chinese territory and demanded that the Japanese Coast Guard stop any illegal encroachment into Chinese territorial waters. This came at a time when Taiwan-China relations were firming following the inauguration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).

Every time such an incident happens, there is consensus that Taiwan and Japan should hasten to resolve the issue of fishing rights. The problem is how. Over the past dozen years, the two sides have held 15 meetings to discuss the issue without reaching any substantial agreement. The main reasons are as follows.

First, Beijing has intervened, saying Sino-Japanese fishery agreements already exist. In its view, as part of China, Taiwan is regulated by these. If Japan negotiates agreements unilaterally with Taiwan, it will violate the “one China” principle.

Second, Taiwan and Japan differ in their claims of jurisdiction over the disputed waters. One reason little progress has been made is neither side is willing to concede its own advocated temporary enforcement line and geographical central line. For Japan the central line principle is not only regulated in laws dealing with its exclusive economic zone but is also one of its main arguments for resisting Chinese oil exploration, making it unlikely that Japan will compromise on this issue.

Third, although Taiwan passed the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf of the Republic of China Act (專屬經濟海域及大陸礁層法) in 1998, the government has yet to declare the outer boundaries of the nation’s exclusive economic zone, hence Taiwan’s claim of sovereignty cannot be effectively addressed.

Whether the government can resolve these problems is key to a future resolution of the situation. However, the long-term outlook is not necessarily negative. Faced with Chinese interference, the Japanese government positioned fishery negotiations with Taiwan as non-state fishery agreements from the start and does not think they will affect relations with China. Whether Ma’s administration can handle the pressure from China’s “united front” strategy on this issue is another interesting issue.

In terms of the legal aspects of drawing boundaries, the government should behave as a sovereign state and issue an unambiguous proclamation of its outer boundaries of its exclusive economic zone. If it decides not to assert its claim because of concerns about pressure from neighboring countries, it will be restricting its own freedom. It stands to reason that a sovereign country defines the maritime area under its jurisdiction in accordance with the Law of the Sea. The opinions of other countries do not affect the legality of a country’s proclamation of maritime jurisdiction in itself, although this won’t stop dissent from other countries. The delimitation of overlapping boundaries should be resolved through peaceful consultation.

Furthermore, the 1997 Sino-Japanese fishery agreement set up a temporary co-management fishery zone between latitude 27ºN and 34.4ºN, which suggests that both sides have agreed to shelve disputes over sovereignty and restrict themselves to finding solutions to fishery issues.

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