Taiwan and Japan on Wednesday concluded their second round of meetings under the Taiwan-Japan Maritime Affairs Cooperation Dialogue Mechanism. Efforts seem to have been made after the inking of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on maritime emergency rescue operations, but is the annual dialogue really being used to tackle core issues, or is it simply a formality?
The dialogue mechanism was created on May 23 last year to resolve the two sides’ divided and unbending stances on the thorny Okinotori Atoll issue.
It was established only three days after President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration — which is considered more Japan-leaning than the previous Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government — was inaugurated, which shows how much of an impediment Okinotori has been to Taipei-Tokyo ties.
Near the end of former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) second presidential term, relations between Taiwan and Japan reached a new level of hostility after the Japan Coast Guard’s seizure in April last year of a Taiwanese fishing boat operating about 150 nautical miles (277.8km) east-southeast of Okinotori.
Japan refused to release the boat until the Ministry of Foreign Affairs paid a ￥6 million (US$52,860 at the current exchange rate) so-called deposit to secure its return. The demand for what the public deemed a “ransom” galvanized an outcry in Taiwan and a strong response from Ma’s administration.
Japan insists it is entitled to a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone around Okinotori, which it says is an island, despite its total area being less than 10m2.
The Ma administration publicly declared Okinotori to be a rock and instructed government agencies at all levels to refer it as such in official documents.
There is no international consensus on the issue.
After taking office, the Tsai administration toned down the government’s official stance and pledged not to take a legal position on the atoll’s classification until the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf delivers a ruling, but it urged Japan to respect the rights of Taiwan and other nations to fish and freely navigate the area.
However, despite the government’s gesture, little compromise has been seen from Japan.
At a post-meeting press conference in Taipei on Wednesday, Taiwan-Japan Relations Association
Secretary-General Chang Shu-ling (張淑玲), who headed the Taiwanese delegation, acknowledged that differences remain between the two sides on the issue.
Although Chang said both sides have demonstrated sincerity and goodwill in addressing the matter and have seen the gap between their opinions narrowed, the fact that the ￥6 million deposit — which the government said it is determined to see returned — was not even mentioned during the two-day meeting, raises the question of whether Taiwan is the only side making compromises.
Few details about the MOU signed at the meeting’s closing ceremony were provided, showing its insignificance. One cannot help but wonder if the agreement was inked merely for the sake of showing the public that something was achieved.
With Japan now also leading talks about the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership — which Taiwan expressed great interest in joining even before the US’ exile in January — Taiwan is quickly losing any leverage it has over its closest Asian ally on talks about fishery disputes or about an import ban on foods from the five Japanese prefectures near the site of the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster.
The only question is how much Taiwan is willing to give up for a closer alliance with Japan and, in turn, a greater role on the international stage.
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