In September 2020, a Japanese Coast Guard ship collided with a Taiwanese fishing boat in the waters around the Senkaku (尖閣諸島)/ Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚臺列嶼). The Taiwanese captain asserted that he never entered disputed waters, and that the Japanese Coast Guard relentlessly chased him after colliding with his ship. In response, Taiwan’s Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) demanded an explanation, and said Taiwan would not tolerate “any inappropriate behavior” from Japan. Tokyo, on the other hand, said that the Taiwanese boat was fishing illegally in the Senkaku territorial waters. No one was injured, but following this incident, Taiwan’s coast guard actively patrolled waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands, with the intention of protecting Taiwanese fishermen.
This incident shows the limits of Taiwan’s approach to fishery disputes. Taiwan has adopted a model of practical compromise through fisheries agreements with Japan and the Philippines. However, tensions with both countries still remain due to overlapping territorial claims and pressures from an increasingly competitive fishing industry in Asia. Taiwan’s fisheries agreement with the Philippines from 2015 narrowly focuses on law enforcement and fails to clarify fundamental issues of disagreement. Taiwan’s fisheries agreement with Japan has a stronger foundation, but is set back by a lack of communication and little buy-in from local interests. Until these systems are reworked, fisheries will continue to be a sore spot in two of Taiwan’s closest regional partnerships.
Taiwan’s Maritime Claims in the East and South China Seas
The Republic of China (ROC) in theory holds the same territorial claims in the East and South China Seas as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC’s “Nine-Dash Line” (九段線) delineating its maritime claims stems from the “Eleven-Dash Line” (十一段線) put forward by the ROC’s Nationalist government in 1947. However, in practice, China’s and Taiwan’s approaches to claims in the South China Sea are quite different. Taiwan, particularly under the current Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) leadership, does not benefit from animosity with neighboring democratic nations like the Philippines and Japan. The Philippines is a central target of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) New Southbound Policy (新南向政策), while Japan is an increasingly important security partner for Taiwan.
However, Taiwan is forced to move delicately on this issue, as complete rejection of Chinese maritime claims could be interpreted as a move toward independence, and might inspire Chinese retaliation. While Taipei has paid lip service to the ROC’s historical claims, its actions have largely been in support of the US position on the South China Sea. In light of this situation, Taiwan has relied on ambiguity and moderation, downplaying its territorial claims in favor of practical agreements for shared use of contested waters.
Taiwan-Philippines Fisheries Relationship: A Dangerous Lack of Details
Overlapping claims between Taiwan and the Philippines center on the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) including Scarborough Shoal (黃岩島). The most contentious areas are Thitu Island (also known as Zhongye Island, 中業島) and Itu Aba (also known as Taiping Island, 太平島). Thitu Island is currently administered by the Philippines, but it was originally controlled by Taiwan. In 1971, the Philippines took the opportunity to seize the island after the ROC left the island due to an oncoming typhoon. Thitu Island remains a sore spot in Taiwan-Philippines relations today. The Philippines have actively embarked on numerous construction projects on Thitu Island. This sparked Taiwanese outrage in 2019, but their complaints have been ignored, as the Philippines announced plans for a new logistics hub on the island in May of 2021.
Itu Aba, on the other hand, is currently controlled by Taiwan and claimed by the Philippines. As the largest above-water feature in the Spratly Islands, Itu Aba played a large role in the 2016 arbitration case between the Philippines and China, where it was classified by the Hague tribunal as a “rock” rather than an island. Taiwan, which was excluded from proceedings, vehemently protested this classification.
These disputed waters are prime territory for conflict over fisheries. The most famous fishing dispute between the Philippines and Taiwan occurred in 2013, nearly leading to a complete breakdown in bilateral relations. The Philippines Coast Guard killed Taiwanese fisherman Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成) during a time when he was located in the overlapping area of Taiwan and the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), provoking anger on both sides. After a good deal of brinkmanship, President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines apologized, and the two sides began a laborious negotiation process.
After two years of negotiations, Taiwan and the Philippines signed the Agreement Concerning the Facilitation of Cooperation on Law Enforcement in Fisheries Matters (臺菲有關促進漁業事務執法合作協定) in 2015. Implementation questions have been discussed at yearly technical working groups. In 2017, the agreement was updated to improve law enforcement notification procedures and to fight illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The 2013 incident, which was what originally set Taiwan and the Philippines on the path to cooperation, took longer to resolve. The Filipino coast guardsmen who killed Hung Shih-cheng were not convicted until 2019.
Despite the successes of the fisheries agreement, there is still ample room for improvement. The agreement, which is exclusively focused on avoiding the use of unnecessary force by law enforcement, is limited in scope. For example, the bilateral agreement has not clearly delineated where Taiwanese fishermen can operate without being arrested by the Philippine Coast Guard. The agreement also does not include joint fisheries regulations. This is a lost opportunity, as joint regulations could serve as a cohesive plan for maintaining fish stocks and the health of the sea floor. Finally, the agreement lacks an associated committee with the authority to finesse details or provide guidance. These shortcomings have obstructed progress in resolving outstanding fisheries issues between Taiwan and the Philippines.
In addition, the relationship between Filipino workers and Taiwanese ship captains is another source of tension. A substantial proportion of the crews on Taiwanese ships are from the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries. Unfortunately, Taiwanese fleets are known for frequent reports of non-payment, long working hours, verbal and physical abuse, and “debt bondage.” Worker-employer relationships can spiral into bilateral conflict. In 2019, a Filipino fisherman killed eight people on board a Taiwanese fishing vessel. Although thankfully this case remained fairly low profile and was not disputed by the Filipino government, incidents like this can easily become politically sensitive. While they are unlikely to derail the Taiwan-Philippines relationship, they can strongly impact public opinion.
In 2020, Taiwanese seafood was included on the US Labor Department’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, and this July, Taiwan ranked 12th on the US Trafficking in Persons Report, largely due to the practices of its fishing industry. The Taiwanese government is taking these charges seriously, with a new Action Plan for Fisheries and Human Rights, and orders from the Control Yuan (監察院) to take corrective measures.
Overall, the Taiwan-Philippines relationship is susceptible to damage from fisheries conflicts, due to workplace exploitation and a fisheries agreement that is insufficient on a number of key issues. In particular, the agreement’s lack of specified boundaries, joint regulation, and a managerial committee to clarify questions, leaves fishermen and law enforcement in a dangerous state of uncertainty.
Taiwan-Japan Fisheries Relationship: Good Foundations with Insufficient Communication
Unlike Taiwan-Philippines maritime disputes, which are centered in the South China Sea, Taiwan-Japan disputes are focused on the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan, despite being located closer to Taiwan than Japan. President Tsai has tried to avoid controversy with Japan, but backlash sprung up in 2020 when the Ishigaki city government changed the area’s administrative name to “Tonoshiro Senkaku,” prompting President Tsai to reiterate Taiwan’s claim. More recently, in February 2021, the Japan Coast Guard received authorization to fire on anyone landing on the Senkaku Islands.
Arguments between Japan and Taiwan over the islands go back decades. The most significant incident occurred in 2012, when Japan attempted to nationalize the Senkaku Islands via purchase by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara (石原 慎太郎). In response, Taiwan fiercely protested the move and sent over two coast guard ships. After this incident, the two sides signed the Taiwan-Japan Fisheries Agreement (臺日漁業協議) in 2013, which clarified fishing rights around the Senkaku Islands, as well as the Yaeyama Islands (八重山列島) and Miyako Islands (宮古列島). The agreement was modified in 2015 and 2018 to reduce collisions and to more clearly delineate areas and times for each group to fish. Taiwan’s fisheries agreement with Japan is more comprehensive than its agreement with the Philippines: it is detailed, with a clearly mapped border and an active managerial committee.
However, incidents still occur, as can be seen from the 2020 collision mentioned above. Beyond collisions, the competition over fish stocks that shrink each year also places stress on the Taiwan-Japan relationship. Japan blames Taiwan (in addition to China) for the declining Pacific saury catch in 2021. Taiwan has the second largest distant-water fishing fleet in the world (after China), and its industry is substantially subsidized, incentivizing unsustainable fishing practices.
Taiwan has also expressed concern about Japan’s choice to release treated radioactive water from Fukushima Daiichi into the ocean and its impact on the fishing industry. On June 11, 2021, Taipei protested against Japan’s “unilateral decision” to release the water without consulting its neighbors, and is carefully monitoring the water. This year, Taiwan’s government discussed helping Taiwanese fishermen to seek compensation from Japan if the release of the radioactive water creates adverse effects on their livelihoods. Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) politicians have criticized the slow progress of these negotiations, calling the DPP response “too weak.”
Ship collisions, competing demands on fish stock, and contamination concerns will likely become increasingly salient issues in the coming years. To handle this, the Taiwan-Japan and Taiwan-Philippines cooperative frameworks should be bolstered and expanded in scope, especially in the latter case. Furthermore, all sides should take preventive measures to dispel conflicts over fish stocks, waste, and the marine environment. Improved bilateral communications are necessary but may not be sufficient, and greater effort by all three sides should be taken to get buy-in from local fishermen, who have not completely accepted the agreements.
The main point: Fisheries disputes are a weak area in Taiwan’s otherwise strong relationships with the Philippines and Japan. Taiwan’s fisheries agreements are a good first step, but the Philippines agreement is unclear and lacks crucial details, while the Japan agreement is not sufficiently proactive in preventing future conflicts.