Fishing Agreement zone in purple with Senkaku Island's 12 mile territorial zone excluded in middle

Fishing Agreement zone in purple with Senkaku Island’s 12 mile territorial zone excluded in middle

Following on from Michal Thim’s ASW post, which contains the details of the deal, the Japanese media reaction has been illuminating, and it appears to be the number one story alongside North Korean missiles on most Japanese news sites.

Something appeared to be stirring in late March when it was reported in the Japanese media that Taiwan was to relax its demand that Japan, at the very least, officially recognize the existence of a dispute over the Senkakus. This decision apparently took place in a mid-March meeting between President Ma Ying-jeou and his Cabinet ministers. Then suddenly yesterday the Japanese media started reporting that a deal was to be signed within 24 hours. Today’s reporting (日) on the deal confirms that Japan believes that it is making the most significant concession by allowing for fishing inside the EEZ that would theoretically surround the Senkaku Islands. This will open up the fields to competition, at the expense of Ishigaki (Okinawa) fisherman, particularly for the prized kuro-maguro (northern bluefin tuna).

While the Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Suge has already argued publicly that the agreement was to restore order over the East China Sea fishing issue and not to “split” China and Taiwan over perceived cooperation surrounding the Senkaku sovereignty dispute, no one, including the Japanese media, believes him. Both Jiji (日) and Yomiuri (日) report that an additional reason for the agreement is indeed to silence repeated Chinese calls for PRC-ROC cooperation over the territorial dispute. Jiji notes that domestically Ma has been forced to become somewhat less of a “hardliner” on the territorial dispute, and Japan’s willingness to make significant concessions played a part in pushing Ma towards relaxing his stance (Richard Katz, of The Oriental Economist, notes in a NBR post that many in Taiwan wanted to prioritize the fishing issue over the territorial issue, as also noted by Michal).

The Jiji article also notes that in February the Taiwanese foreign affairs ministry rebuked perceived Chinese “intervention” in Japan-Taiwan fishing discussions. Ma also announced in the same month that Taiwan would not collaborate with China on the territorial issue. This reportedly gave a boost to negotiations by assuring the Japanese further, thus allowing them to make the final concession subsequent to the official announcement of a willingness to shelve the territorial dispute by the Taiwanese side later in March. By agreeing to shelve the territorial issue, this now puts some pressure on the PRC to follow suit, as it has been reluctant to do so since what they view as Japan’s attempt to alter the status quo in 2012.

The Yomiuri however in another story (日) was the most explicit and informative in its reporting. Confirming Michal’s suspicions that Prime Minister Abe was a critical actor, it notes that the Prime Minister’s Office (Kantei) played a leading role in pushing the negotiations to their conclusion. Without leadership from the top, negotiations would have likely remained bogged down due to Japanese officials’ worries about hurting Okinawan fishing interests. Abe himself apparently became particularly concerned from September 2012 about the geopolitical implications should Taiwan and the PRC look to collaborate on challenging Japan on the issue.

According to the Yomiuri, when Abe came into office in December he therefore immediately instructed the agencies involved to proceed to concluding the deal. There were other signals according to Yomiuri. For example, at March’s two year memorial of the 3/11 triple disaster, Japan accorded Taiwan “equal status” to other nations’ representatives in terms of the seating arrangement, ostensibly in recognition of the overwhelming generosity of the Taiwanese people in contributing to the recovery through charitable donations. This led to the Chinese representative refusing to attend. This was not only appropriate recognition of Taiwan’s contribution, but apparently a strategic signal to Taiwan in the context of the still difficult negotiations then ongoing.

Nevertheless, the Japanese Fishing Agency (suisancho 水産庁) still continued to oppose a deal. But the Kantei eventually overruled its objections and from that point the decisive concession regarding access to prized tuna fishing stocks was able to be extended to the Taiwanese in April. The Taiwanese were able to claim a significant domestic victory for the Ma government, and the Foreign Minister at the signing ceremony boasted that Taiwan had increased its officially recognized fishing areas a further 4530 square kilometers.

So the story goes, anyhow.

So there is no doubt that this diplomatic victory has been driven by Prime Minister Abe’s intervention. In hindsight, this should not be surprising. Abe, perhaps more than many past prime ministers, has always shown an interest in geopolitics and during his first tenure as prime minister was rather successful in improving Japan’s relations with ASEAN and other nations, including China itself. Abe most notably intervened in the India-Japan FTA negotiations which had stalled and drove them to a successful conclusion, again, despite some domestic reluctance. Abe’s TPP commitment can also be understood in this geopolitical context. That Abe should be particularly concerned with Taiwan’s apparent drift towards China is not surprising. The Kishi/Sato/Abe family has always been much more predisposed towards Taiwan than the PRC. In fact, former Japanese leaders (and natural brothers) Kishi Nobusuke and Sato Eisaku were crucially involved in the setting up of the “Tawian Faction” of the LDP in the 1950s, where it remained strong until the 1970s. Shintaro Abe, father of Japan’s current PM, carried on this connection during the period that Japan-Taiwan relations suffered. In the mid-1990s the Taiwan Faction however gained a minor boost, especially as Taiwan moved towards democracy and the US-Japan alliance was strengthened subsequent to the Taiwan Strait crisis. Current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is looked upon favourably by many Taiwanese politicians and his 2006 Cabinet contained 9 members of the Japan-Taiwan Diet association. Abe, Kishi’s grandson, has been publicly somewhat quieter on Taiwan given his prominence and the sensitivity of his seniority in Japanese politics, but that does not apply to Abe’s younger brother Kishi Nobuo, who is very much a supporter of Taiwan and now coming onto the political stage. In this sense alone the agreement is very much one that, as CCS Suge notes, has historical significance.




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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 48 post(s) on New Pacific Institute