Taiwan and Japan recently signed an important East China Sea fishing rights agreement after 17 years of negotiations. More than anything, the deal represents a striking concession from Japan. Since 1996, Japan had attempted to prevent Taiwanese fishing boats from entering its claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extending 200 nautical miles from the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, which are known as the Diaoyutai in Taiwan. Taiwanese fisherman have a long history of working the waters surrounding the Senkakus. The Taiwan government also claims that sovereignty of the islands reverted to the Republic of China (ROC), as the Taipei-based government is formally known, after Japan’s defeat in World War II. Over the years Japan has softened its stance, apparently allowing Taiwanese fishing boats to operate to within 25 nautical miles of the islands before the agreement was signed. The recent deal formalizes and extends those rights, providing Taiwanese fishermen access to all but the 12-nautical mile territorial waters around the islands.
Japan was willing to make this concession for two main reasons. First, the entry of Taiwanese coast guard vessels and fishing boats full of activists into Japanese-controlled waters around the Senkakus put Japan under considerable pressure. There was clearly a significant element of political theater involved, with Taiwan carefully coordinating these forays with Japan to avoid any miscalculation. Nevertheless, images of Taiwanese and Japanese coast guard vessels exchanging water cannon fire undermined the perception of effective Japanese control over the area at a time when Japan was struggling to maintain this control in the face of increasingly menacing pressure from China, which also claims the islands. Second, Japan’s relations with China have continued to deteriorate, making Japan more motivated to remove Taiwan from its Senkaku calculations and less concerned about any negative Chinese reaction to the Japan-Taiwan deal.
As such, the agreement is a good policy outcome for the government in Taiwan. President Ma Ying-jeou has successfully reminded Japan that Taiwan cannot be ignored. And far from alienating Japan, he has probably brought the two sides closer together by removing the islands as an obstacle in bilateral relations for the immediate future. At the same time, Taiwan has avoided overly irritating its—and Japan’s—security guarantor, the United States, through careful efforts to put the lie to suggestions that it is working in collaboration with China on the territorial dispute. Ma has also satisfied the main domestic stakeholders in the dispute, Taiwanese fishermen, and neutralized the thorny aspects of the issue linked to Taiwan’s sovereignty and identity.