On June 22, the city of Ishigaki in the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa—which has administrative jurisdiction over the disputed Diaoyutai (釣魚台)/Senkaku Islands (尖閣諸島) in the East China Sea—passed a bill to change the district name of these islands from Tonoshiro to “Tonoshiro Senkaku” (登野城尖閣), purportedly in response to increased Chinese incursions near the islands. This recent Japanese name change, which will take effect on October 1, has once again renewed tensions in a nearly half-century territorial dispute between Taiwan, Japan, and China, and has led local interest groups and opposition party politicians within Taiwan to press the central government to defend the Republic of China’s (ROC) sovereignty. President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration has thus far managed to prevent its ongoing fisheries and sovereignty disputes over the Diaoyutai Islands from exacerbating tensions in its partnership with Tokyo.
Taiwanese Local Reactions
Politicians from both major parties in northeastern Yilan County criticized Ishigaki’s impending name change of the disputed islands. In advance of the Ishigaki vote, the Yilan County Council (宜蘭縣議會) approved a motion on June 11 proposing that the Diaoyutai Islands be renamed “Toucheng Diaoyutai”(頭城釣魚台) in order to highlight that the county’s Toucheng Township (頭城) has administrative authority over the islands. The county council moved to pre-empt the Ishigaki vote through its own name change in order to defend ROC sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands.
The Ishigaki bill sparked new protests from politicians and fishermen in Yilan County, as the Diaoyutai Islands, from Taiwan’s perspective, fall under the jurisdiction of Dasi Village (大溪里) in the county’s Toucheng Township, while the waters surrounding the Diaoyutai have been the traditional fishing grounds for several generations of Yilan fishermen. Fishing groups in Yilan County’s Suao (蘇澳) Township, concerned about their fishing rights, protested the new Japanese name change, as they had done previously in 2017 when the current name change was initially proposed by Ishigaki’s mayor. Yilan County Councilor Tsai Wen-yi (蔡文益) suggested gathering a group of fishing boats from the Toucheng and Suao townships on July 7—the anniversary of the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident (七七事變) that ignited the Second Sino-Japanese War—to defend the islands.
In addition, Yilan County Magistrate Lin Zi-miao (林姿妙), who is a member of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, called on President Tsai to visit the Diaoyutai Islands to assert ROC sovereignty. KMT Chairman Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) backed this bold move and also put pressure on the Tsai government “to take all necessary measures” to safeguard the sovereignty and fishing rights of the ROC on the islands. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) responded that the Japanese name change would not change the fact that the Diaoyutai Islands remain an integral part of Taiwanese territory. President Tsai reiterated Taiwan’s claim over the Diaoyutai Islands and urged other claimants to put aside their disagreements and jointly develop the islands with Taiwan. Unlike her predecessors Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who made trips to Pengjia Islet (彭佳嶼)—the closest ROC-held territory to the disputed island chain—to claim sovereignty over Diaoyutai, Tsai thus far has refrained from participating in this nationalistic overture. Instead, she has taken a more cautious and less confrontational approach vis-à-vis Japan, which has been a vocal advocate for Taipei’s participation in the World Health Assembly and has grown in strategic importance for Taiwan as cross-Strait tensions sharpen. Indeed, the renewed tensions in the East China Sea come at a time when Taipei critically needs Japanese diplomatic support to buffer against increasing political and military pressure from Beijing.
East China Sea Dispute
Japan currently administers the uninhabited, resource-rich Diaoyutai Islands, but both China and Taiwan claim sovereignty over them. In January 1895, after the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese Empire secretly invaded and occupied the islands in the East China Sea. In April 1895, the Qing Dynasty and the Japanese Empire ended the war with the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ceded Taiwan and all affiliated islands to Japan. Following the end of World War II, the United States assumed trusteeship over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands until May 15, 1972, when Washington handed over administrative management of the Ryukyu and Diaoyutai Islands to Tokyo but took no position on the sovereignty of Diaoyutai. Taipei has argued that the islands and Taiwan were both returned to the ROC after 1945, a strikingly similar position to the one held by Beijing.
Regional tensions rose after the Japanese government announced the “nationalization” of the Diaoyutai in September 2012. Large-scale anti-Japanese demonstrations in China led to the destruction of Japanese offices, restaurants, and shops. In Taiwan, the Suao Fishermen’s Association (蘇澳區漁會) organized a demonstration involving 58 fishing boats and 292 fishermen, which sailed under the protection of the ROC Coast Guard to the waters near the Diaoyutai Islands in a four-hour standoff against the Japanese Coast Guard. Northern Taiwanese fishermen have long complained about harassment from the Japanese Coast Guard while fishing near the Japanese-administered islands.
The territorial dispute took center stage during Ma Ying-jeou’s administration, which sought to gain greater fishing rights without compromising Taiwan’s claims of sovereignty over the islands (主權不讓步，漁權大進步). Ma proposed an “East China Sea Peace Initiative” (東海和平倡議) on August 5, 2012, intended to resolve the territorial dispute through bilateral and trilateral negotiations with China and Japan. Ma emphasized that all three sides could jointly explore and develop resources in the East China Sea and create a code of conduct to prevent confrontations in the area.
Taiwan-Japan Fisheries Agreement of 2013
After 16 rounds of fisheries talks that began in 1996, Taipei and Tokyo reached a landmark bilateral agreement in 2013 aimed at resolving their 40-year fisheries dispute. The Taiwan-Japan Fisheries Agreement (臺日漁業協議), signed on April 10 of that year, was the first agreement that addressed each side’s fishing privileges in the overlapping Taiwanese and Japanese exclusive economic zones (EEZ). This pact enabled Taiwan’s fishing vessels to operate freely within a 74,300-square-kilometer area around the Diaoyutai Islands and north of Japan’s Yaeyama and Miyako Islands, giving Taiwanese fishermen an additional 4,530 square kilometers (or 1,400 square nautical miles) to fish without interference from Japan. However, the agreement did not apply to the maritime zone within 12 nautical miles of the Diaoyutai Islands, which both countries continue to contest. Ma suggested that a similar approach could be taken between Taiwan and the Philippines in their fishery talks, which resulted in a fishing agreement in 2015. The Taiwan-Japan Fisheries Agreement has also been proposed as a model for cooperation between the myriad of countries vying for territorial and sovereignty rights in the South China Sea.
Lingering Tensions over Fishing Rights
Although former President Ma claimed that fisheries disputes declined significantly in the years following the 2013 agreement, the issue has yet to be resolved and continues to be a source of friction between Taiwan and Japan. Japanese fishermen in Okinawa want to amend the fisheries agreement by reducing the perimeter of the permissible maritime area for Taiwanese fishermen. However, the Suao Fishermen’s Association argued that changing the agreement would decrease their catch, given that most bluefin tuna live in the proposed excluded area.
The Taiwan-Japan Fisheries Commission (臺日漁業委員會), established by the Taiwan-Japan Fisheries Agreement, has convened annually to discuss amendments to the 2013 pact. At the latest meeting in late March 2020, the two sides failed to agree on changes to the existing maritime zone, according to MOFA. The stalled progress comes against the backdrop of several new incidents involving Taiwanese fishing vessels chased off by Japan’s coast guard. In March, two Taiwanese fishing vessels that were operating in Taiwan’s EEZ off the coast of Hualien and Taitung were driven off by Japanese official vessels. Then, in early April, Japan warned Taiwanese fishing boats not to enter its EEZ around Okinotori Islet (沖之鳥), which is not internationally recognized under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The recent spat over Ishigaki’s name change to the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands has once again brought the East China Sea dispute between Japan, Taiwan, and China back into the political limelight. Beijing called the Japanese name change “a serious provocation to China’s territorial sovereignty,” arguing that it is “illegal, invalid, and cannot change the fact that the Diaoyu Islands belong to China.” In Taiwan, the contention over the Diaoyutai Islands is as much about pragmatically securing fishing rights for northern Taiwanese fishermen as it is about safeguarding ROC sovereignty from foreign interference, regardless of whether the threat comes from a traditional adversary (China) or a friendly nation (Japan). The territorial dispute has been politicized in Taiwanese politics, as opposition parties—namely the KMT—have called the Tsai administration “weak” for not being more assertive in protecting Taiwanese fishermen against repeated interference by Japanese ships and failing to defend the ROC’s sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands.
However, the main geopolitical factor that may have affected Taipei’s management of its fisheries dispute with Tokyo is the state of cross-Strait relations. Former President Ma’s outreach to Beijing seemingly created a new political alignment that could pit both Taiwan and China against Japan. Backed by improved relations with China, the Ma administration presumably had more leeway to up the ante against Japan on the issue of Taiwanese fishing rights. By contrast, the Tsai administration may have calculated that it cannot afford to alienate Japan over the longstanding territorial dispute given the current regional environment. Beijing’s political and military pressure campaign against Taipei has made Japan’s support all the more indispensable.
The main point: The recent spat over a local Japanese government’s name change to the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands has renewed tensions with Taiwan. Despite reaching a landmark fisheries agreement in 2013, the fisheries dispute remains a continual source of tension between both sides.