Taiwan and Japan got into an antagonistic rhetorical exchange over Okinotori Island’s legal status late last month, when the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) seized a Taiwanese fishing boat about 150 nautical miles (nm) off of Japan’s southernmost, atoll-sized, island-like feature. Japan claimed the ship was operating in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a claim which Taiwan disputes.
Unlike most other island disputes in the region, Japan and Taiwan are not embroiled in a dispute over control of the islands per se, but a dispute over whether Okinotori counts as an “island” or not under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).
Japan believes Okinotori is an “island” – and therefore, entitled to a contiguous zone, a 200 nm EEZ, and continental shelf. However, because Okinotori cannot sustain human habitation and economic life on its own, Taiwan argues that the feature is only a “reef.” This is significant, because a reef only generates 12 nm of territorial waters from its baseline under UNCLOS.
The boat and its crew were seized on April 25, and released one day later after the owner paid 6 million Japanese yen ($55,000) as a security deposit pending legal procedures.
In response to the Japanese seizure, Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration (CGA) sent a 2,000-ton vessel and 3,000-ton cutter to the region. Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture also supported the fishermen’s operations by dispatching a fishing training ship to protect ships in the disputed EEZ. As Taiwan argues that these waters are “international waters,” it believes it has a right to dispatch patrol vessels to protect their fishermen – a move which Japan opposed.
Both the Japanese government and Taiwanese government sent vessels into the 200 nm zone of Okinotori’s tuna-rich waters on May 6. Despite the back-and-forth, calm heads prevailed, and Taiwanese leaders explicitly played down any desire to use the incident for political advantage. Tsai Ming-Yao, secretary general of the Association of East Asian Relations, said the matter should be handled “in a low-key manner. … What it means is that they hope both sides can handle the matter calmly and peacefully.”
On May 9, Taiwanese authorities revealed that bilateral negotiations over the Japanese seizure of the fishing vessel Dong Sheng Ji No. 16 will begin “soon.” Taiwan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Javier Hou stated that the Ministry hopes to resolve the issue through peaceful means and that Japan also appears willing to address the issue through bilateral talks. He said, “We hope rational dialogue will lead to a resolution that both sides find satisfactory.”
In the short-term, Hou hopes to reclaim the 6 million yen fine paid to Japan. But according to a Japanese Foreign Ministry official who spoke to Kyodo News, Taiwan is unlikely to get the money back because from Japan’s perspective, authorities were following domestic procedures. In the long-term, Hou wants Taiwan and Japan to sign a bilateral fisheries agreement to guide operations in the waters around Okinotori. So far, the Taiwanese have not asked for an apology, and Hou affirmed that an apology was never on the agenda.
Taiwanese fishermen also face a pinch where their EEZs overlap with the Philippines’. For example, on Sunday, a Taiwanese fishing boat claimed that an unknown warship had tailed it while it was operating in waters where Taiwan and the Philippines’ EEZ claims overlap. The unknown warship followed Cheng Te Hui from 2 nm away, but did not disturb operations. In response, the Taiwanese Coast Guard Administration (CGA) promised to dispatch a new 1,000-ton patrol vessel in the area as soon as possible. Two hours later, the CGA reported that the warship had left the scene.
Taiwanese fishing boats have also complained to Taiwanese authorities about Vietnamese fishing boats operating in Taiwan’s EEZ off the Pratas Islands in the South China Sea. The CGA is already overstretched, however, as they acknowledged receipt of the concern, but admitted they could not send ships there in the immediate future because its large patrol vessels were then operating in waters between Taiwan and the Philippines and near the Okinotori. The Pratas Islands are controlled by Taiwan but also claimed by China.
This Taiwan-Japan spat is just one incident that reflects the increasing trend in competition over fishing resources. In Asia’s crowded waters, quibbles over technical language are only likely to increase as a source of real tension with economic and geopolitical implications.