Taiwan: The winner in the China-Japan row?

Dispute between two powers results in unexpected benefits for tiny Taiwan’s fishing industry.

Li Yuan-zhang, a Taiwanese fisherman, said the waters around the islands are rich in bluefin tuna [Jens Kastner/Al Jazeera]

In a lone tower overlooking a Taiwanese fishing port, a fisherman uses his massive hand to draw lines over a maritime chart. Each triangle and line he draws indicate waters that, he argues, belong to Taiwan. An official from Taiwan’s local fishery association sitting next to the fisherman voices his full-throated approval.

Fishermen in Taiwan’s once-sleepy port of Suao are experiencing a heyday because of increasingly ugly territorial tensions between Japan and China. The East China Sea’s Senkaku Islands are controlled by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan, who call the islands the Diaoyus and the Diaoyutais, respectively.

To fend off arch rival China, hard-nosed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sought to win over the Taiwanese by suddenly allowing its fishermen access to the disputed waters. His government granted even more concessions to the Suao fishermen in recent weeks, arguably at the expense of Japan’s own fishing folks. 

“The [high-value] bluefin tuna loves that particular triangle south of the Diaoyutais the Japanese now let us operate in, because the waters there are deep,” said Taiwanese fisherman Li Yuan-zhang. “Before Japan changed course, their coastguard had fined us 4,000,000 yen [$40,000] whenever they impounded our boats for entering those waters.” 

Japan closed off the area in 1994, when the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea came into force. The treaty allowed Japan, like other countries, to draw a 370-kilometre exclusive economic zone around every speck of land it controlled in the ocean, no matter how small. According to Chen Chung-sheng, the chairman of the Suao Fishermen’s Association, fishermen could in the old days sail to the Diaoyutais from Suao with very little fuel, as they were carried there by the Kuroshio ocean current. “And on the way back, the vessels would make use of the parallel-running southward Qing current, like changing directions on a highway,” he explains.

Difficult to access from Japan

By contrast, Chen maintains, Japanese fishermen rarely travelled to the islands because a 3,000-metre-deep trough separating Japan’s Okinawa island and the Diaoyutais made the journey dangerous. Furthermore, there were rich fishing grounds much closer to Okinawa. “There is a trough between Taiwan and the [Chinese] mainland, and there is a trough between Japan and the Diaoyutais – but there is none between Taiwan and the Diaoyutais,” Chen says.

Chinese navy conduct patrol of disputed islands

In December, Abe sparked an international controversy by paying tribute at a shrine to Japan’s war dead, including several war criminals. But as the world looked with disapproval at Japan, the country’s fishery negotiators smoothed out remaining issues with their Taiwanese counterparts, creating good press in Taiwan.

Fishery Agency Director-General James Sha, Taiwan’s top fishery negotiator, tells Al Jazeera that Taiwan can live with the outcome – for the time being. Sha, who has been involved in bilateral talks since the mid-1990s, confirmed a sudden shift in Japan’s attitude towards the Taiwanese last year that, as his aide whispers, was steered by Japan’s Foreign Ministry instead of the authority actually in charge of the fishery.

One sticking point in the recent Suao talks, Sha says, was the different ways in which Taiwanese and Japanese vessels fished.

“[The Japanese] cast their lines in north-south direction, we in the east-west one. And our vessels outnumber theirs by far in the Diaoyutai area, increasing the risk for them,” he says. Sha explains that the hooked lines used by the Japanese to catch tuna are thinner than the ones the Taiwanese employ, meaning that in case of entanglement, the Japanese will likely get the short end of the stick.  

He adds that the Taiwanese would not be able to continue setting up north-south fishing lines, because this would entail placing parts of the 56-km-long nets in waters closed off by the Japanese. “So we agreed that the Taiwanese vessels must keep more distance between each other. As to the benefits of the fishery agreement signed last year, the Suao vessels catch twice as much bluefin [tuna] in those waters than before,” he says.

A small political price?

According to Chen Ching Chang, a political scientist at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, the fact that only a small number of Japanese fishermen operate around the Senkakus – and that most of these fishermen come from the Okinawa prefecture – mean that Abe may have to pay only a small political price for favouring Taiwan’s fishermen.

“Okinawa’s interest has almost always been considered secondary by the Japanese government,” Chen notes. He elaborates that Abe’s recent decision to move an unpopular US Marines’ base on Okinawa to another part of the island, in the face of strong local opposition, is just one of the latest examples.

“If Abe can go ahead with the controversial Futenma relocation plan without much hesitation, his government should find it easy to use this fishery concession to neutralise Taiwan when the tensions between Japan and China remain high,” Chen says.

Source: Al Jazeera