Coast guard vessels from Taiwan and Japan dueled with water cannons yesterday as Taiwanese fishing boats sailed close to the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) to assert Taiwanese sovereignty over the islets.
The fishing boats came as close as 3 nautical miles (5.5km) to the Diaoyutais, known as the Senkakus in Japan, but were thwarted from making a possible landing by Japanese coast guard vessels, which deterred the protesters from approaching any further.
The Taiwanese boats arrived near the Diaoyutais at about 5am yesterday after sailing overnight escorted by 10 Coast Guard Administration (CGA) ships.
The fishing boats assembled 18 nautical miles off the Diaoyutais to prepare for their planned circumnavigation of the island group in pods of five ships each. Their approach led to a standoff between the Taiwanese coast guard ships and their Japanese counterparts.
More than 10 Japanese patrol boats used flashlights and water cannons to disperse the Taiwanese fishing vessels, warning them over loudspeakers to leave. At one point, they also dropped smaller boats into the water and tried ramming them into the fishing boats.
CGA ships responded by firing water cannons and using loudspeakers and LED lights to say, in Chinese, “This is Taiwan’s territorial waters. You should not interfere with the operations of our fishermen.”
CGA ships sailed between the Taiwanese fishing vessels and Japanese patrol boats, at one point stopping in front of the Japanese boats to allow the fishing vessels room to maneuver.
Lin Jih-cheng (林日成), commander of an organizing committee on safeguarding fishing rights, said the ships were able to sail near the Diaoyutais and achieved the aim of their protest.
Considering the rough sea conditions, Lin announced at 9am that “the mission is completed, and all fishing boats will return to Nanfangao.”
CGA vessels remained about 4 nautical miles from the Diaoyutais to see that all fishing boats left the area safely.
The 75 Taiwanese fishing vessels, carrying banners reading “Defend our territorial waters” and “Diaoyutais are ours,” set off from the fishing port of Nanfangao (南方澳) in Yilan County on Monday to protest Japan’s recent move to nationalize the islands by buying three of them from a private owner.
The Diaoyutais, about 120 nautical miles northeast of Taipei, are administered by Japan, but claimed by Taiwan and China, and the fishermen wanted to assert Taiwanese sovereignty over the islands and their right to operate in what they call their traditional fishing grounds.
The CGA said its main goal was to prevent Japanese ships from boarding Taiwanese fishing boats or taking Taiwanese fishermen into custody.
CGA Deputy Director-General Wang Chung-yi (王崇儀) said the agency had simulated possible scenarios beforehand for the encounter and expected Japan to send large ships to the site.
“Japan mobilized 21 ships, with the largest weighing 6,000 tonnes,” Wang said.
He said that because of the rough sea conditions around the Diaoyutais, with waves as high as 4m, the CGA did not take more aggressive action, out of consideration for the fishing vessels.
He also said the coast guard did not encounter Chinese fishing boats during its escort mission, but noted that there were five Chinese patrol ships around the island chain, all outside the 12 nautical mile territorial zone.
The Ministry of National Defense said the navy dispatched one Cheng Kung and two Chi Yang-class frigates in waters off the coast of northeastern Taiwan in support of the Taiwanese fishing boats. Several sorties of F-16 and Mirage 2000 fighters also monitored the situation while conducting routine reconnaissance missions.
The island chain has been a traditional fishing ground of Taiwanese fishermen for several decades, but they have been harassed and chased away by Japanese coast guard ships in recent years.
Taiwan and Japan have held 16 rounds of fisheries talks to try to solve the dispute, to no avail.