Japan and Taiwan held their first bilateral maritime cooperation dialogue under the new Tsai Ing-wen administration in Tokyo on October 31, 2016. The delegations from Taipei and Tokyo were represented by Taiwan’s Association of East Asian Relations and the Japan Interchange Association, along with other relevant government officials. They discussed issues of mutual concern, including fishing rights near Okinotori-shima (沖之鳥礁), an atoll located 950 nautical miles south of Tokyo and 850 nautical miles east of Taiwan.
In April 2016, the Ma Ying-jeou administration harshly protested against the detainment of a Taiwanese fishing boat by the Japanese coast guard near Okinotori-shima. The fishing boat was released after the ship paid a security deposit of $6 million yen (which is equal to around $58,164). Until that point, Taipei had not taken a clear position on whether Okinotori-shima is legally an “island,” which can serve as a basis for an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and a continental shelf, or a “rock,” which entails only 12 nautical miles of territorial sea. But, following the April incident, the Ma administration made its position clear that Okinotori-shima is a “rock” and dispatched Taiwan’s coast guard boats to patrol the vicinity of Okinotori-shima.
After taking office in May 2016, however, President Tsai Ing-wen stated her administration would not take a position about the legal status of Okinotori-shima and announced the establishment of the maritime cooperation dialogue with Japan. This maritime dialogue was scheduled for July but postponed at the request of Taipei, perhaps because of the Philippines-China South China Sea Arbitral Award on July 12, which set a strict legal standard for what constitutes an island, and even designated the Taiwan-occupied Taiping Island (Itu Aba), the largest feature in the Spratly Islands, as a “rock.”
The maritime dialogue is an important step to deepen ties between Japan and Taiwan. In her interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun—the most circulated Japanese newspaper—President Tsai expressed her will to increase cooperation with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to strengthen relations and promote regional stability.
Reportedly, the two sides could not reach an agreement on fishing rights around Okinotori-shima. The Taiwan delegation insisted that Taiwanese fishermen have the right to operate freely in the waters near Okinotori-shima. Taipei also demanded the return of the security deposit paid for the release of the detained Taiwanese fishing boat in April. In response, the Japanese delegation repeated Tokyo’s claim that Okinotori-shima is an “island” and thus entitled to a 200-nautical-mile EEZ.
The two sides agreed to have the next round of dialogue next year in Taiwan, while continuing working-level talks on fishing rights around Okinotori-shima. They also agreed to discuss other issues such as fishery resource conservation, search and rescue at sea, and marine scientific research.
Fisheries have always been a difficult issue for Japan and Taiwan. The two sides concluded a civil fishery agreement in the East China Sea, dividing fishing and law enforcement areas between the two. It was a strategic success and served as a symbol of deeper bilateral cooperation. But the agreement caused dissatisfaction among Okinawan fishermen due to aggressive Taiwanese fishing culture.
The fishery agreement between Taiwan and Japan in the East China Sea is not a suitable model for Okinotori-shima. For there to be an agreement on Okinotori-shima, Tokyo will insist that Taipei at least implicitly acknowledge Japan’s sovereign right to the 200-nautical-mile waters around the atoll. Taiwanese fishermen may be permitted to operate there only after paying for a license. Moreover, Tokyo is unlikely to adopt flagship control and permit the Taiwanese coast guard to operate there, as it claims that Taiwan has no legal ground to claim a sovereign right to those waters.
On the other hand, such an agreement is difficult for Taipei to accept due to political sensitivity. Taiwanese opposition parties demand the protection of the rights of Taiwanese fishing boats by Taiwanese coast guard near Okinotori-shima. While an agreement is necessary before the next fishing season comes in spring of next year, even an implicit acknowledgement of Japan’s sovereign right near Okinotori-shima might put President Tsai in a difficult position.
Indeed, Okinotori-shima is a test for the strategic partnership between Prime Minister Abe and President Tsai. There is a need to change the narrative. The issue at stake is not just about fishing but also about regional security. Located between Guam and Taiwan, Okinotori-shima has played an important role for the security of Taiwan. As long as Japan’s jurisdiction over the waters around Okinotori-shima is acknowledged, China is not allowed to conduct scientific surveys necessary for submarine operations without Tokyo’s permission. Prevention of Chinese survey operations in the western Pacific is in the interests of both Japan and Taiwan. This fact should be the foundation for Japan-Taiwan maritime cooperation.
Denying that Okinotori-shima is an island will not help Taiwan claim “island” status for Taiping Island, either. If the South China Sea Arbitral Award is read literally, most of world’s remote islands without a civilian population are designated rocks. To strengthen their respective claims over Okinotori-Shima and Taiping Islands, Tokyo and Taipei should cooperate in providing a model of effective use of remote islands.
Cooperation in other areas should also be promoted. For example, Japan and Taiwan can discuss how they can cooperate in promoting Taipei’s accession to more international fishery treaties. Tokyo can also assist Taipei in approaching ASEAN about South China Sea issues. Additionally, Japan and Taiwan can discuss regional maritime security issues such as piracy and marine environmental protection. Finally, exchange between the two coast guards should be promoted under the maritime cooperation dialogue.
The main point: There is a need to change the narrative over Okinotori-shima. For Taiwan and Japan, not only fishing rights but regional security is at stake in this dispute.