The Implications of the Japan-Taiwan Fisheries Agreement


Japan and Taiwan have temporarily shelved territorial disputes over the Senkaku Islands in order to conclude a fisheries agreement. This is a positive step, but tensions remain. We analyze the main points in the agreement and consider future developments.

Background to the Agreement

While a resolution to the dispute over the Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu by China and Diaoyutai by Taiwan) remains a distant prospect, Japan and Taiwan have managed to resolve another longstanding issue: in Taipei on April 10, 2013, the two sides signed a fisheries agreement. (As Japan and Taiwan have no formal diplomatic relations, the agreement was officially between the Interchange Association of Japan and Taiwan’s Association of East Asian Relations.) It is said that the parties involved had agreed to try and conclude the agreement by the time the Takarazuka Revue—a Japanese all-female musical theater troupe—began its first ever run of performances in Taiwan on April 6. In the end, the agreement was signed right in the middle of the performance schedule.

There were two main factors in the background to the settlement of this agreement. The first was the East China Sea Peace Initiative proposed by Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, which formed the basis for the foreign policy line taken by the Taiwanese. The second was Japan’s desire to place a wedge between Taiwan and China, preventing them from forming a united front against Japan’s interests. There was additional influence from the United States, which was also in favor of a resolution to the fisheries issue. This agreement is a significant development for both Japan and Taiwan, and there has been much praise, but it is also true that many unresolved issues remain.

Shelving Sovereignty Disputes

President Ma announced the East China Sea Peace Initiative on August 5, 2012. In it he proposed shelving disputes over the Senkaku Islands to reach agreement on a code of conduct for the East China Sea, with the objectives of peace and joint development of resources. On September 7, Ma published implementation guidelines for the initiative, which contained a wide variety of proposals, including bilateral and multilateral fishing industry cooperation. The line Ma took with the initiative was, at the very least, one of the steppingstones to the fisheries agreement.

Events that followed, however, changed the situation somewhat. The September 2012 decision by the Japanese government to nationalize the Senkakus brought about heightened tensions between the two nations, with fishing communities staging protests in Yilan County, Taiwan. This caused an unusual reaction from the Japanese government when it published a message through the IAJ from Foreign Minister Genba Kōichirō addressed to the Taiwanese people. In the message he proposed reopening fisheries negotiations. There were concerns that the Taiwanese side could get bogged down in sovereignty issues, but in the end problems of this nature were put to one side and negotiations focused on the two aspects emphasized in the East China Sea Peace Initiative: peace and shared development of resources.

The negotiations themselves were not just at the diplomatic level; they also took place among domestic governmental departments and various affected parties. In particular, the Japanese Foreign Ministry faced strong opposition from the Fisheries Agency, which wanted to protect fishing rights. There were also complaints from local fishing industry organizations and Okinawa Prefecture, both of which objected to being bypassed during the negotiations. It appears that Prime Minister Abe Shinzō pressed ahead despite considerable domestic discord in taking the initiative with the talks.

A Wider Operational Area for Taiwanese Fishermen

As noted above, the parties put aside sovereignty disputes in order to conclude the fisheries agreement. This means that Taiwan still claims the Senkaku Islands and surrounding waters—although in fact, Taiwan has no track record of administering the islands. The fisheries agreement defined the fishing rights of Japan and Taiwan with respect to seas outside Japanese territorial waters and south of the 27th parallel, one of the boundaries stipulated in the Japan-China Fishery Agreement.

We can see a degree of consideration for Ma’s peace initiative in the content of the first article of the agreement, which states, “This agreement aims to maintain peace and stability in the East China Sea, promote friendship and mutually beneficial cooperation, and maintain a system to preserve and reasonably make use of marine resources in the exclusive economic zone.” The Taiwanese side commented that it was clear that the Japanese highly valued Ma’s peace initiative and that the respect shown was a positive factor in the negotiations.

The second article of the agreement specifies waters where the Taiwanese and Japanese can fish freely, and a “special cooperative zone” where Taiwanese boats complying with the relevant rules will no longer be supervised by the Japanese. This zone is larger in size than Taiwan’s temporary enforcement area, so this can be seen as a positive result for the Taiwanese negotiators. Another passage in the agreement (Article 2, Clause 5) stipulates that waters outside the specified zones will be subject to future discussions, and that the zones described are temporary, leaving open the possibility of continued negotiations. Any such talks that happen from now on will be conducted by the Japan-Taiwan Fishery Committee, which was formed for the purpose of fulfilling the terms of this fisheries agreement.

The Seeds of Discontent Remain

This agreement is significant in many ways, but I would like to focus on three points in particular.

First, this agreement is a constructive step toward peace and order. It shows that decisive action can be taken even in East Asian seas where disputes are ongoing.

Second, although Taiwan has no diplomatic relations with Japan, it is an actor on the diplomatic stage. This agreement drives a wedge between Taipei and Beijing, preventing the two from becoming too close. Given that Japan is highly concerned with the security situation around the Ryūkyū Islands, the Japanese island chain south of the main four islands with Okinawa as their largest member, the fact that Taiwan can be considered an actor is important. This is a new aspect that can be added to the “1972 setup.” On February 8, 2013, Taiwan refuted the notion that there would be any tie-up with China over the Senkaku Islands dispute and instead aligned itself more closely to Japan and the United States. On April 17, in preparation for potential attacks from China, the Taiwanese military began live-ammunition military drills, which Ma himself rushed to attend.

Third, since the fundamental Chinese view is that the Senkaku Islands are part of Taiwan’s territory, the fact that Taiwan and Japan have managed to conclude an agreement on the waters in this area is, to a certain degree, a refutation of this claim.

At the same time, though, the process of concluding this agreement has left many outstanding issues for the years to come. Let us consider four of these here. First of all, the agreement has basically shelved all questions of sovereignty, leaving them unresolved for now. We can therefore expect the Baodiao Movement—a social movement in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan asserting Chinese sovereignty of the Senkakus—to continue. The Ma administration may crack down on Baodiao vessels, but Japan will still need a framework in place to handle any sudden incidents. Such incidents could occur in a variety of circumstances—for example, while Japan cracks down on Taiwanese vessels inside its territorial waters, or during the so-called policing actions taken by the Chinese.

A second outstanding issue is the question of how closely the Japanese and Taiwanese sides worked with local fishing operators in advancing the negotiations. Without sufficient steps to secure the cooperation of these fishermen, it is likely that these developments will sow the seeds of future trouble. Indeed, when I visited Taiwan’s Yilan County in April to talk with people in fishing communities, I encountered many opinions, a variety of demands, and much dissatisfaction. News reports from Okinawa also carry word of discontent and protest.

The third issue is how well the Japan-Taiwan Fishery Committee will function (assuming it does so at all). A similar committee was formed for the Japan-Korea Fisheries Agreement in 1998 and there is a great deal of debate over how well that committee is serving its purpose and producing results. Both Japan and Taiwan will need to work hard to ensure that this time the committee functions effectively in dealing with the fishery zones specified in the current agreement—and when negotiating other zones in the future.

The Need for Long-term, Multilateral Negotations

Lastly, we have the China question. China uses the term “core interests” when it wants to identify issues over which it is prepared to go to war. This term is especially used in relation to Taiwan. China’s assertion that the Senkakus are part of Taiwan therefore logically infers that they are also part of its core interests. China has been vague about whether this is actually the case, but there is almost certainly no mistake in assuming that Beijing views these islands in a different light than the disputed territories in the South China Sea. When viewed from this perspective, the current fisheries agreement is clearly one of great significance, but we must also be aware that it may have provoked the Chinese. So far they have only shown a mild level of displeasure over the development. We will need to keep a careful eye on the situation and monitor how the Chinese reaction evolves.

There is also the possibility that the Taiwanese may try to enter into some kind of agreement with the Chinese over the East China Sea. If Taiwan tries to balance China against the US-Japan side, its actions could provoke fresh frictions in the region and cast a shadow over the relevance of the fishery committee. Furthermore, this July the Kuomintang will elect a new party chairman, and elections are also slated next year to choose the mayors of some of Taiwan’s key cities. The island’s political situation could become very fluid. The Japanese will have to carefully and courteously engage with their Taiwanese counterparts.

In any case, one thing is for sure: this fisheries agreement is not the end of the road—it is but the first step. Continued negotiations in a multilateral framework are needed.

(Originally written in Japanese on May 1, 2013. Title photograph: Taiwanese fishing boats bound for the Senkaku Islands from the port of Su-ao in Yilan County, Taiwan, September 24, 2012. Photo courtesy AP/Aflo.)

diplomacy Japan China Kawashima Shin Taiwan Senkaku Islands Ma Ying-jeou industry Territory fishing Diaoyu fisheries agreement