These Islands Ain't Big Enough…


On 10 June 2008, the SS Lien Ho set off from Taiwan. On board were 16 crew and deep-sea fishermen. It was set to fish the rich waters near what the crew would have called the Diaoyutai islands — a set of islets claimed by Japan, Taiwan and China. At some point in its operation, the fishing vessel came into contest with a Japanese coastguard frigate attempting to repel what it considered an intruder. The two collided, the 270-ton fishing boat sank — but the crew was rescued.

For years now, fishing off these disputed islands has been no easy task. But surprisingly, amid the tension, concord was recently reached.

On 10 April, after 17 years of effort and 16 fruitless meetings, Japan and Taiwan finally agreed about fish. A 74,300 square kilometre body of water around the islands, which Japan calls the Senkakus, would now be shared. It was a moment of harmony in an otherwise discordant territorial dispute.

The five islands and three rocks that make up the Senkakus/Diaoyutais seem valueless. Spare, unpopulated and small, the islands have been described by Der Spiegel as replete with goats, waterfalls and little else. Yet control has worth. Resources are believed to be buried in the adjacent seabed. Valuable schools of fish swim its waters.

The most recent dispute between Japan, Taiwan and China flared in September 2012, after the Japanese government purchased three of the islands from the Kurihara family for US$26 million. The hard-line governor of Tokyo had been eyeing the plot of rocks and Japan said its acquisition was an attempt to block the governor’s more provocative plan.

Since then, Japan has consistently scrambled fighters to interdict non-military and, according to a recent report, military Chinese aircraft that have been entering the islands’ airspace. Naval vessels shadow each other in the waters. In one particularly worrisome incident, Japan claimed that China painted one of its vessels and helicopters with a radar lock-on, for weapons targeting. China, though initially rejecting such claims, eventually admitted to the incident.

It is within this heated context that Japan and Taiwan reached agreement, one in which Taiwanese fishermen gained an additional 4,530 square kilometers of freely fishable waters.

There are limits. The waters within 12 nautical miles of the islands were not included in the agreement, which took effect immediately. Shortly after the signing, Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration said it would protect from Japanese coastguard harassment those Taiwanese vessels sailing within this 12-nautical mile zone.

Alexander Huang, a Tamkung University professor who specialises in national defence and foreign affairs, told NM that this issue should present no large obstacle. Both sides, including fishery authorities, know exactly how the new agreement functions, and know what disputes they need to avoid, he said.

As for the broader agreement, those commentators NM spoke with said it was a significant precedent; notable for the fact it shelved sovereignty to solve the critical issue of fish.

“The agreement demonstrates that even with unresolved sovereignty counter-claims, the two sides could reach a reasonable formula to manage and harvest fish stocks,” Douglas Paal told NM. Paal is the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and previously served as the director of the American Institute in Taiwan — a role akin to ambassador in lieu of any formal diplomatic ties between the two countries.

“There is a lesson here for China and other fishing interests in the Diaouyutai area, and in the South China Sea,” Paal said. A “win-win” for Tokyo and Taipei, as he put it. One that arrived in time for the more favorable winds and currents of the fishing season.

Alan Romberg, director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in the United States, described the accord as a significant step toward maintaining peace. By giving access to long-blocked fishing grounds, the arrangement “removes the incentive for [Taiwanese fishermen] to engage in demonstration flotillas … which could be quite dangerous,” he told NM.

Fleets of Taiwanese fishermen have periodically staked their claim by sailing to the islands’ waters. In September 2012, 58 Taiwanese fishing boats, along with Taiwan coast guard vessels, steamed to the islands in protest. Newspapers were splashed with images of fishing boats turning circuits around Japanese coast guard vessels in choppy sea.

Despite solving the matter of fish, not all will be satisfied. “This does not take care of the ‘protect Diaoyutai’ activists in Taiwan, who are concerned only about sovereignty and not fish,” Romberg said.

In 1895, Japan, citing terra nullius, claimed the Senkakus. It made marginal efforts to develop the islets. After World War II, America took control. The islands were used for bombing practice. In 1972, America returned the rocks and grass to Japan.

China and Taiwan began voicing their claims shortly after the release of a UN report in 1969 that suggested vast oil resources in the vicinity of the islands. Both countries, with identical history up until the split in 1949, present similar historical claims, arguing that documents dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) describe the islands as part of China’s “defense sphere”.

As for the dispute between China and Japan, this precedent, unfortunately, may not matter. “The primary argument between Beijing and Tokyo is still the sovereignty claims,” Huang said. Fish are secondary.

Romberg agreed. Regardless of whether they reach a tacit or explicit agreement, China will continue to send fishing vessels into the 12-nautical mile zone, he said. China might do it less but out of principle it will not stop. “Japan … cannot accept the legitimacy of such activities.”

In reaching accord, Japan and Taiwan both had incentives, Paal suggests. “All along I have heard from Japanese officials of their desire to reach an amicable settlement.”

Taiwan needed to satisfy its fishermen, like those in the eastern country of Yilan. In 2004, Taiwan produced US$3 billion worth of fish (Around 60 per cent from offshore fishing.)

“Tokyo … may have wanted to show China an alternative path, or to eliminate the complication of Taiwan’s demands at a time when the focus is on the mainland,” Paal said. 

In partially removing this third element from the dispute, Tokyo seems to have been aware of a potential, seemingly unlikely, alliance between Taiwan and China. “There is no question that Tokyo sought to make sure Taipei and Beijing did not gang up against it,” Romberg said.

Taiwan persistently rejected any notion of an alliance. However, Romberg noted, “The PRC was trying very hard to change that.”

“Moreover, the Taiwan fishermen, who said they really had no particular interest in the sovereignty issue, only fish, nonetheless also indicated that if Taipei couldn't get a good deal on fish from Tokyo, they might turn to Beijing for support.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was aware of these factors, Romberg suggested.

“We took into account Taipei's stance that (it) will not partner with Beijing over the Senkaku Islands,” Abe said about the agreement on 23 April.

This shining but seemingly parochial agreement faces, in Huang’s opinion, a possible hurdle. It relates to China.

“The only challenge would be that Chinese fishing boats come into the new fishing zone and cause trouble,” he said. After the signing, Taiwanese authorities iterated that they would remove Chinese fishing vessels that they catch within the area.

Yet to do so would, Huang said, cause undue tensions between two countries already mired in a sour diplomatic history.

“We have — not government — but private citizens, scholars and experts … who have privately advised China not to let fishing boats come to our zone … to avoid embarrassment.”

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.