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Publication Date : 31-12-2013


During summer this year, regional fishing territory disputes became a major issue in Taiwan, reaching further than its usual diplomatic circles. On April 10, Taiwan had signed a fishing agreement with Japan after enduring 17 years of on-again, off-again negotiations.

The agreement which came into effect on May 15, 2013,  allows Taiwanese fishing boats to operate within a 74,300-square kilometre radius around the Diaoyutais, a chain of islands claimed by Taiwan, Japan (which calls them Senkaku), and China.

The Diaoyutais have long been a topic of contention in the East Asian sea disputes. Despite Taiwan’s friendly ties with Japan, coast guards from both nations have been involved in several clashes over the Diayutais, which is presently under Japan’s administration.

One such incident occurred in September 2012 when Japanese coast guards engaged in a “water canon duel” with Taiwanese coast guards that were dispatched to accompany protesters who were travelling to the Diaoyutai to highlight Taiwan’s claim on the islands.

The recent Taiwan-Japan fishing agreement was set to be a practical solution and a great progress in resolving a highly political sovereignty issue. But it was the death of a Taiwanese fishing boat captain who was gunned down by a Philippine coast guard vessel on May 9, 2013, that brought the issue of regional fishing territory disputes to the headlines in Taiwanese news. 

The death of Hung Shih-cheng which occurred within the overlapping waters of the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of Taiwan and the Philippines saw public uproar in Taiwan where it was seen as an unprovoked act of violence on a fishing boat operating within Taiwan’s own fishing zone. The Philippines, however, justified the incident as enforcement of the law against a vessel which had encroached into Philippine territory, and refused to apologise at first— further stoking the fury of the Taiwanese. 

Pressured by public calls for action, the Taiwanese government issued a formal condemnation against the Philippines on May 11, and demanded an apology and compensation for the family of the victim, as well as an investigation into the incident and that those found guilty would be brought to justice. Taipei also called for discussion with Manila on fishing territories that was to be held on May 15. 

However, on May 15, the Taiwanese government announced that it had not received a satisfactory response from Manila. In retaliation, it issued sanctions such as suspending applications of Filipinos seeking to work in Taiwan, and recalled its representative in the Philippines, while ordering the Philippine representative in Taiwan to return home. 
The next day, Taiwan sent coast guard vessels and a warship to accompany fishing boats in Taiwan’s southern EEZ waters.

The sanctions were not lifted until August, after Manila finally issued a formal apology for Hung’s death to his family.

Fishermen not involved
The fishermen themselves, however, remain strangely oblivious to the widely publicised territorial and fishing issues.

Several fishermen interviewed soon after the shooting on May 9 told The China Post that they did not know about the incident or the Taiwan-Japan fishing agreement, or even about the disputes between Taiwan and the Philippines.  

“We spend most of our time out at sea, we don’t follow the news a lot,” said one fisherman when asked about his opinion on the Philippines’ response to the dispute.

Another fisherman who only wanted to be known as Chang said that he was once chased away by Japanese coast guard helicopters while fishing 22 nautical miles from the Diaoyutai islands, a location where, as per bilateral agreement, he should not have been disturbed.

When asked if he had flown the Taiwanese flag onboard his ship before or during the incident, Chang said, “No. We fly no flags. Even if we wanted to, we would be better off flying the Chinese flag as the Japanese coast guards are more apprehensive of approaching Chinese fishing boats.”

“Everyone knows the Chinese flag, but no one knows the Taiwanese flag,” a fellow fisherman, who declined to be named, chipped in.
The only way Chang and his fellow seafarers could tell that some form of agreement had been made was that the Japanese coast guards used to arrest Taiwanese fishermen who came too close, “but now they mostly just chase us away”.

“When you get close, you will start to see the Japanese helicopters in the sky. That’s when you know that you need to turn around and get out of the territory. If you keep going forward, the coast guards will come after you,” said fisherman Liao Wei-chih, relating what happens to foreign boats that encroach into Japan-administrated waters.
Tsay Tzu-yaw, deputy director-general of the Taiwan Fisheries Agency, said he has never heard of any incidents involving boats flying the Chinese flag.

He added that the agency had not received any complaints by the fishermen about being chased off when they neared the Diaoyutais, and that harassment by Japanese coast guards have lessened significantly since the fishing treaty was signed.

Lin Hsin-yung, a councilor with the Keelung Fishery Council has a different opinion. “Treaty or no treaty, anyone who fish in the area near the Diaoyutais are bound to be hounded by the Japanese coast guards.

Other fishermen interviewed by The China Post had contrasting opinions regarding the May 9 shooting incident, from the Taiwanese public.

“We have Filipino fishermen working with us on our boat and we get along just fine. As far as we fishermen are concerned, this issue has nothing to do with us—it is a conflict between the Taiwanese and Philippine governments, not us,” said one fisherman.

More talks
The outrage displayed by the Taiwanese public on incidents such as the confrontation between the Japanese and Taiwanese coast guards in September 2012, and the shooting in May this year, as well as the ignorance of the fishermen themselves, show that disagreements over fishing zones can become “proxy fights” for larger-scale sovereignty disputes.

However, the practical approach of the seafarers also sheds light on how horn- locking East Asian nations can take a step back to establish some form of platform for rational and reasonable communication.

Their individual responses aside, all the nations in East and Southeast Asia share a common interest for regional stability. In fact, most of the states involved in sea disputes are actually riding on the backs of nationalist sentiments at home—a factor that is hindering reconciliation and negotiations.

Therefore, in such a deadlock where multilateral agreements are desired, but cannot be easily established, perhaps low-profile fishing zone negotiations can offer inroads to a less-political dialogue between nations, serving the same purpose—to solve the decades-old disputes.

With regards to the already existing Taiwan-Japan fishing agreement—with some improvements—it can be used as an example of how pragmatic dialogue can be achieved amid thorny disputes—that is, the best way to resolve the Diaoyutai issue is at the negotiating table.
As the furore over the May 9 shooting incident died down, Taiwan and the Philippines have begun talks on a fishing agreement. The talks are being held with a similar goal in mind—to prevent anymore such incidences from occuring again.

In August 2012, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou had proposed the East China Sea Peace Initiative that called for mutual cooperation, peaceful dialogue and observance of international law in settling sea disputes. However, the president’s call was drowned by the voices of larger players such as Japan and China.

Since China’s announcement of a new air defence identification zone recently which includes the air space over the Diaoyutais, Taiwanese diplomats have increased the volume on their call for the signing of the East China Sea Peace Initiative by writing to international press agencies across the globe.

However, efforts have not yielded any results. Taiwan is perceived as not speaking from a position of strength. Rather, China, Japan and the US—not Taiwan—are seen as the major players in this issue. The letters written by the Taiwanese leaders became more about increasing Taiwan’s involvement and international voice in the Daioyutai issue, than about the peace initiative.

In a letter sent to the Boston Globe which was published on December 7, Anne Hung, the director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural office in Boston, Massuchusetts, expressed her dismay over an article published by the newspaper: “…your December 3 editorial…did not mention the position of Taiwan in the (issue concerning) the Diaoyutai islands”.

Small but crucial piece
While the Taiwanese government is undoubtedly clamouring for more attention on the issue, Taiwan’s low profile can actually enable it to be a regional mediator. Amid the nationalistic stance held tightly by each party involved in the regional disputes, there is a need for a mediator that is seen as “less threatening” to facilitate negotiations and see them to success.

Taiwan enjoys a good relationship with Japan, as attested by the recent fishing agreement, and its ties with China is also warming up under the Ma presidency. Japanese officials are also seen as more willing to discuss the issue with Taiwan than with Beijing.

Even its dealings with the Philippines over the shooting incident  shows that Taiwan can be a reasonable negotiator. After things calmed down, Taiwan made efforts to rebuild the friendship by sending navy vessels loaded with relief goods to victims of Supertyphoon Haiyan in central Philippines.

Beijing on the other hand, was internationally criticised for sending late and meagre aid—a response seen as motivated by its existing territorial disputes with the Philippines.

Therefore, Taiwan should take advantage of its “small” position on the international stage (Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations and has diplomatic ties with only 22 countries), and offer itself as a mediator to settle the regional disputes.

This will not only help Taiwan earn international exposure and goodwill, but also improve regional security for itself.

While the chances for a de-facto peace initiative remain low as most nationals still find sovereignty disputes a useful distraction from domestic problems, less ambitious, smaller-scale agreements such as a region-wide fishing agreement can be a big step forward.
Fishing treaties alone will not solve regional disputes, but they offer an opportunity for those involved to sit and talk—a move which will help build trust, and some form of understanding with each other.

Governments of the countries in the region, particularly those involved in the territorial disputes should consider the potential in the pragmatic agreements such as fishing treaties, and they should also begin to work on strengthening existing pacts while setting out to make new ones.


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