Following its nationalization of three of the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan — the Japanese government is trying to demonstrate its goodwill by showing a willingness to negotiate with Taiwan about fishing rights.
A focus of attention for the media is whether President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government can manage to manage such negotiations so that Taiwan does not sacrifice its sovereignty over the islands in return for the right to catch fish in nearby waters.
Fishermen, for their part, are primarily concerned about whether government departments, especially those in charge of fisheries, are thoroughly prepared for any forthcoming fishing rights negotiations.
They hope that talks can lead to a break with past stalemates, so they can go back to working their traditional fishing grounds around the Diaoyutai Islands with peace of mind and without interference from Japanese coast guard vessels.
In 1996, Japan enacted its Law on the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf, claiming an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extending 200 nautical miles (370km) from its baseline, or up to a median line where such a zone overlaps with another country’s EEZ.
Ever since this law was enacted, Japan has been sending patrol vessels to expel Taiwanese fishing boats that enter its claimed EEZ, which includes the waters around the Diaoyutai Islands.
During this time, Taiwanese fishing boats have been boarded and impounded by Japanese government vessels, putting the fishermen in danger and threatening their livelihoods — especially as they have sometimes been made to pay huge fines.
Taiwanese fishermen got very angry about this and demanded that the government negotiate with Tokyo to win back the fishing rights that they had originally enjoyed.
It was because of this pressure that Taiwan-Japan negotiations over fisheries began. Over time, the two sides have held 16 rounds of talks, but have failed to reach a common understanding.
There are several reasons for this, such as that the Japanese government and Japanese fishermen feel no pressure or urgent need to negotiate with Taiwan. However, the core problem is that the two sides have different positions as to who has sovereignty over the Diaoyutais.
Japan takes a very hard line on this matter, as a result of which all fishery negotiations held thus far have ended quickly — with no tangible progress made. Consequently, fishery disputes keep erupting between Taiwan and Japan.
While Taiwan’s fishermen continue to suffer as a result of this problem, the government has limited its response and thus cannot give them effective protection.
Principally this means that Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration pulls its punches when it comes to escorting fishing boats. Frustrating as it may be, all Taiwanese fishermen can do is keep clear of their traditional fishing grounds. Needless to say, they are very unhappy about the way they have been elbowed out.
Now Japan is trying to dampen the Taiwanese backlash against its stealthy takeover of the Diaoyutais by expressing its willingness to cooperate in using fishery resources around the islands and to restart bilateral talks by holding a 17th round of negotiations.
Whether this can relieve the tension to some extent remains to be seen, as Taiwan’s government can be expected to approach the matter with caution.