Taiwanese fishermen have been the biggest winners in the signing of a fishery agreement between Taiwan and Japan. They can now fish in the waters surrounding the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) —which are claimed by Taiwan, China and Japan (where they are known as the Senkaku Islands), but are controlled by Japan — because Japan gave Taiwan permission to fish in three maritime areas outside of Taiwan’s enforcement line.
Politically speaking, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has been the biggest winner. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which constantly criticized him after conflicts in the East China Sea, has now turned around and applauded him. The East China Sea peace initiative proposed by Ma initially fell on deaf ears. Now, however, everything seems to be fine.
On Tuesday last week, former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice presided over a conference at Stanford University in California attended by leading academics and former US government officials. Ma delivered a video address entitled “Steering through a Sea of Change.” He pompously said that although 16 rounds of fisheries talks had been held between Taiwan and Japan without results, an agreement was reached this time thanks to his “leadership” and thanks to the East China Sea peace initiative he proposed last year. Let there be no doubt, Ma is a winner and he has made contributions.
Of course, luck and opportunity are necessary for a great man to succeed. If one does not have these two things, nothing will ever come of one’s efforts. So, apart from congratulating Ma on his achievements, let us take a look at where the luck and opportunity came from.
The economic zone that Taiwan has declared around the Diaoyutais, or the temporary enforcement line to be more precise, runs along a line midway between the Diaoyutais and the Ryukyu Islands in the south, along 126o east longitude and 29o, 30 minutes north latitude. However, the fishery agreement with Japan only covers about half of this area, from below 27o north latitude. This is where the problem lies. How can reaching an agreement on only half the area be considered a great success and why was the area above 27o north latitude not been been discussed?
The key point here is that China and Japan came to a “non-governmental” agreement on the waters between 27o north latitude and 30o north latitude in 1955, listing the area as a “provisional measures zone.” The two countries later confirmed this agreement by signing two Sino-Japan Fishery Agreements, in 1975 and 1997. Japan thus cannot discuss this area with Taiwan.
So why did China and Japan not reach an agreement on the waters below 27o north latitude in 1955? Because China believed that it was still fighting a civil war with Taiwan and that the waters below 27o north latitude were a war zone.
In practical terms, Beijing was right. It did the same thing in 1992 when it excluded the waters around Taiwan in its Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone of the People’s Republic of China, and again when it announced the base points and base lines of China’s territorial waters. After all, such announcements are made for enforcement purposes. A government that stakes claim to its territorial waters and then is unable to enforce its claims would only lose face.
Beijing has always said that its civil war with Taiwan has not ended, or that certain issues are remainders of the Chinese Civil War, as a reason for claiming that Taiwan’s external relations are domestic Chinese issues and then use this argument as leverage to stop Taiwan from using direct diplomatic relations to protect the rights and interests of its people.
No one would have imagined that China’s exclusion of the waters around Taiwan due to the Chinese Civil War would cause Taiwanese fishermen so much hardship. Japan had no choice but to enter into direct talks with Taiwan to delineate sea borders that are related to the sovereignty issue. This greatly angered Beijing. This was the first bit of luck that helped the fishery agreement along and it really was a freakish combination of factors.
The second bit of luck came when increasing tensions in the East China Sea became reminiscent of the tensions prior to World War I.
In 2008, relations between China, the US and Japan were friendly and relaxed, and Ma, who had just been elected as president for the first time, believed that the conciliatory atmosphere would offer him a good opportunity to do great things for Taiwan internationally. Unfortunately, the opposite happened — tensions between China and Japan escalated and Taiwan’s interests were forgotten. Then in 2009, Japan ended fishery talks with Taiwan for the 16th time, forcing Ma to say that no news was good news, and the situation was normal.
However, by last year, tensions in the waters along the entire Chinese coast finally caused Japan to request the resumption of fishery talks with Taiwan. It was at this time that Ma proposed his East China Sea peace initiative, a copy of the previous DPP administration’s Nansha Initiative. This was the appropriate time for such a proposal and the right thing to do. However, do we really have peace now, only because Ma’s initiative led to agreements that ended disputes?
To put things in perspective: Why would we need a peace initiative if peace already existed in the East China Sea?
Despite misjudging the situation, Ma should still be applauded for making the correct choice to complete his contribution.
Throughout the entire process, the DPP not only failed to see how things were shaping up, but also chose not to support Ma, instead dishing out sarcasm and ridicule. This was not a wise move, but in the end, they had the class to commend Ma on his achievements and that was a good thing.
So is Beijing the loser in all this? If peace is what China needs, it cannot be the loser. The only losers are the bellicose extremist nationalists on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
Translated by Drew Cameron