Capricious spring it might be this year on the Korean peninsula, but for Japan and Taiwan, spring has burst forth in the form of an agreement over the Senkakus. J. Michael Cole and Michael Turton agree, that “…agreement could help Tokyo draw a wedge between Taipei and Beijing, which has long called on Taiwan to create a united front against Japan.” Heritage’s Dean Cheng sees this as a good thing.
According to news reports, the two sides agreed to compromise on fishing in an area that is claimed by both Japan and Taiwan. Taiwan agreed not to fish within the territorial waters of the islands (12 nautical miles, under international law), but could operate in the rich fishing grounds outside those waters. In addition, Taipei and Tokyo agreed to establish a joint control committee that would regulate the size of each side’s fishing fleet.
This agreement marks an important step toward reducing tensions between at least two of the players. It is also a politically astute move by both Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Taiwanese’s President Ma Ying-jeou.
For Prime Minister Abe, the move demonstrates that Japan is willing to compromise, and also undercuts at least some of the accusations that he is simply a nationalist. For President Ma, the agreement is consistent with his “East China Sea Peace Initiative,” which argues for refraining from antagonistic actions and shelving controversies, in favor of cooperative exploration and resource development.
The biggest loser from this agreement may be China. Beijing has long claimed that the Senkakus are part of the territory of Taiwan, which Beijing in turn claims sovereignty over. If the authorities in Taipei are able to reach a compromise with Japan, Beijing’s continued assertiveness on the issue will lose its fig-leaf of speaking for “all Chinese.” Not surprisingly, Chinese fForeign mMinistry officials expressed concern over any possible agreement.
From Beijing’s perspective, the agreement raises the specter of a two-China policy, where Japan, and perhaps other states, might treat Taiwan as a full member of the international community. This is something that Beijing has made clear it will not abide. Yet, ironically, Chinese rejection of this agreement might exacerbate this situation. President Ma has generally pursued a conciliatory policy in cross-Straits relations, avoiding talk about independence and promoting economic ties, most notably through the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). If the PRC were now to crack down on Taiwan, it would raise real questions about the viability of Ma’s policies—and might well open the door to more pro-independence elements.
Similarly, single-minded pursuit by the PRC of a more assertive policy would also cast Japan in the role of the reasonable state, willing to pursue a more conciliatory line. Ironically, both Japan and Taiwan have hewed to a line propounded by Deng Xiaoping, who had advocated “set aside dispute and pursue joint development,” with specific reference to the Senkakus.
Turton adds that democracy in Taiwan is also a winner.
As a number of analyses have pointed out, the fishing agreement makes Ma look good at home. On the Japanese side, the agreement enables Tokyo to split Ma from Beijing by offering him a deal. Democracy at work, Ma is following the same policies the DPP did for the same reasons, because they are popular at home. One of the ways Taiwan’s democracy protects Taiwan is that it helps enforce such outcomes regardless of which party is in power. The public cares about fishing rights, but does not care about ROC territorial claims, since it identifies with the ROC only to the extent that the ROC is identified with Taiwan. Although, I suspect Washington was quietly working in the backrooms, pushing for Taipei to mend fences with Tokyo and to stop irritating relations with Japan.
At the least this is good press for Taiwan at Beijing’s expense.