Taiwan-Japan maritime talks ensure fishermen’s rights

  • Date: 2016-11-16

I. Background

On April 25, 2016 a Taiwan-registered fishing vessel, the Dong Sheng Ji No. 16, was detained by the Japanese Coast Guard in the high seas near Okinotori atoll. The vessel was released only after its captain paid a 6 million Japanese yen (approximately US$54,000) security deposit pending legal proceedings. Whether Okinotori is a defined as a “reef” or an “island” will ultimately determine whether Japan can claim an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the surrounding waters. But back in 2008 when Japan requested that the United Nation’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) confirm an extension of Okinotori’s continental shelf, the CLCS’s decision in 2012 only agreed to extend the continental shelf south of the Shikoku Basin region by 200 nautical miles, which includes waters north of Okinotori. In the waters covered by that extension, Japan may claim seabed resources, but not marine resources, so the CLCS decision has no bearing on fishing activities by foreign vessels operating in those waters. Taiwan therefore maintains that the international status of waters surrounding Okinotori is still in dispute.

Since this dispute has yet to be resolved, the Taiwan government maintains that Japan should respect the freedom of the high seas in those waters, including the freedom of navigation and the right to conduct fishing activities, by Taiwan and other countries. The government has also urged Japan to ensure fishermen’s rights and promote cooperation in maritime affairs through diplomatic negotiations.

Based on friendly mutual ties, Taiwan and Japan thus decided to create a mechanism for dialogue regarding cooperation in maritime affairs under the Association of East Asian Relations (Taiwan) and the Interchange Association (Japan) framework. After several months of preparation, the first meeting was convened on October 31 in Tokyo with discussions regarding fishing industry, maritime search and rescue, and marine science and technology cooperation.   


II. Diplomatic negotiations ensure fishermen’s rights

A. Dialogue and cooperation replace conflict and disputes

As Okinotori’s status should respect this year’s international arbitral tribunal award, for Taiwan and Japan, Okinotori is not a sovereignty issue, but a fishing rights issue. Diplomatic negotiations are thus the best way to reach a resolution, engaging in dialogue and cooperation instead of conflict and disputes. This is the Taiwan government’s guiding principle in handling international affairs, and is in the best interests of all parties. Given the high level of mutual trust and the importance of the Taiwan-Japan partnership, both parties should actively expand and build on constructive dialogue and cooperation in maritime affairs based on mutual benefit.

B. Ensure fishermen’s rights and safety

Although the international dispute regarding Okinotori’s EEZ remains unresolved, the government fully understands fishermen’s concerns, and will continue to protect their best professional interests, negotiate with Japan, and defend fishing rights so that Taiwan-registered vessels can fish in the high seas outside Okinotori’s 12 nautical mile territory. Before any agreement is reached, those waters remain important protected fishing grounds, guaranteeing the safety of fishermen operating there.


III. Institutionalize a negotiation mechanism to promote maritime cooperation

Although Taiwan and Japan have signed many important agreements over the past few years covering investment, fisheries and avoidance of double taxation, the current Taiwan-Japan talks are the first time the two parties have met exclusively to negotiate the full spectrum of maritime issues. The meeting negotiations, conducted in a spirit of cooperation, were not limited to fishing industry cooperation, but also included maritime search and rescue operations, and marine technological research surveys. The meeting also established a long-term, comprehensive, institutionalized negotiation mechanism, a significant step forward for Taiwan-Japan relations.

A. Institutionalize maritime dialogue to enhance crisis management capabilities

Taiwan and Japan have reached a consensus and agreed to convene a plenary meeting every year to conduct dialogue regarding cooperation in maritime affairs, with additional task force meetings on specific topics to be convened as needed and with mutual consent. The second plenary meeting for dialogue on maritime affairs is to be held in Taiwan next year, with task force meetings dedicated to oceanographic surveys and fisheries cooperation.

B. Convene fisheries cooperation task force meeting as soon as possible

The Taiwan negotiating team asserted that Taiwan fishing boats have the right to operate in the waters near Okinotori, while the Japanese restated their position that they enjoy the rights to an EEZ in those waters. No consensus was reached on that issue. Both sides, however, have already agreed to convene a meeting of the fisheries cooperation task force as soon as possible to discuss arrangements for Taiwan fishing boats to operate in the waters near Okinotori.


IV. Conclusion

Ensuring the rights and safety of Taiwan’s fishermen is ultimately the government’s responsibility. Before the legal status of the waters surrounding Okinotori is determined by international arbitration, the government will continue to consult with Japan, and resolve disputes through diplomatic negotiations for the benefit of Taiwan’s fishermen, and the nation as a whole. As Taiwan and Japan are maritime nations with many mutual issues and interests, there is much potential for cooperative development. The government thus hopes that this Taiwan-Japan dialogue mechanism will serve as an effective communication channel, and a platform for close cooperation on maritime affairs issues that will benefit both sides.