James Holmes

3 Reasons to Applaud Taiwan-Japan Fishing Accord

Here are three intertwined reasons why Taipei and Tokyo’s deal matters in the long run.

The Naval Diplomat has been critical of our Taiwanese friends of late, so it would be churlish not to send out a hearty huzzah! when one is due. This is one such time.

Last week the news broke that officials in Taipei and Tokyo had agreed to permit fishing vessels from Taiwan to ply their trade within the 12-nautical-mile belt of territorial sea girdling the Senkaku/Diaoyu archipelago. Though the deal may look trivial, here are three intertwined reasons it's a nifty bit of statesmanship:

3. It shows that Taipei is no one's crummy little toady. For awhile it appeared as though Taiwan might side with the mainland in the Senkakus impasse. Ganging up against Japan would have set a disturbing precedent for playground-style diplomacy in the China seas. Cross-strait cooperation of this sort would not just bestow legitimacy on Beijing's effort to strongarm Tokyo, but also start to turn Japan's southern marine flank. To Japanese eyes, driving a salient into the Western Pacific would constitute a worrisome geostrategic development indeed. President Ma Ying-jeou and his lieutenants wisely desisted from helping the mainland bully their common neighbor.

2. It reminds everyone that Taiwan remains a responsible de facto sovereign. International agreements are made by sovereign governments — a status the mainland denies Taipei. China has sought to constrict the island's "international space" for many years, for instance by foisting the stilted name "Chinese Taipei" on it at international gatherings large and small, and by denying it entry into multinational institutions whose members are, after all, sovereign states. By concluding even a modest deal like the one with Japan, Taiwan subtly reminds outsiders that it retains its independence in international affairs, and that its people possess the capacity and the right to decide their own destiny.

1. It shows how mature powers conduct themselves. A stench has surrounded the term appeasement since 1938, when the Munich Conference bartered away parts of Czechoslovakia to Hitler's Germany without the Czechs' consent. Munich involved a particularly toxic variant of appeasement, but in reality nations appease one another all the time. One doubts, for instance, that the United States will come to blows with Canada or other NATO allies over how the Arctic fits into the law of the sea. They will debate, and sparks may be struck, but they will find some mutually acceptable compromise. Similarly, the Taiwan-Japan pact shows that it is indeed possible for Asian powers to shelve big disputes indefinitely while getting on with everyday life.

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Not a bad piece of diplomatic judo vis-à-vis, ahem, a certain regional power that appears to view the land grab as the way to resolve nettlesome territorial disputes. More, please.