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June 27, 2017

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Tsai falls for Tokyo's tricks hook, line and sinker

One question President Tsai Ing-wen must ask herself now is whether relations between Taiwan and Japan have improved since she was inaugurated on May 20 last year.

Tsai inherited a political hot potato from former President Ma Ying-jeou, who intentionally made a big political issue out of the detention of a Taiwanese trawler by a Japanese Maritime Agency cutter off the Okinotori Atoll (沖之鳥島) — near Iwojima of World War II fame — on April 25 last year.

Taipei protested against the detention in the yet-to-be sanctioned exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and Tokyo a counterprotest, insisting that the Japanese claim is accepted de facto by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, with a very small minority dissention from China and South Korea. The trawler, Tung Sheng Chi No. 16, returned to port after the ship's owner paid a margin of litigation for fishing illegally in the EEZ. The dispute should have ended then and there. All Taiwan should have done is wait for the commission to make a decision on the status of the Okinotori EEZ. Should they have failed to formally recognize the Japanese claim, Taipei could sue Tokyo for encroaching on Taiwan's fishing rights in the open sea.

Though Ma's term came to an end less than a month after the dispute, he did not want to end the squabble. The Coast Guard Administration and the Fisheries Agency of the Council of Agriculture started escorting fishing boats going to fish near Okinotori, while the Ministry of National Defense remains ready to send a frigate near but not into the Okinotori EEZ, as a contingency measure in case of armed confrontation with Japanese patrol boats. Tensions mounted.

So the first thing Tsai did after inauguration was to have a Maritime Affairs Cooperation Dialogue Mechanism between Taiwan and Japan launched on May 31 to settle the issue. The joint arbitration organ held its first meeting in Tokyo on Oct. 31. The issue over Taiwan's fishing rights in the Japanese-claimed Okinotori EEZ were not solved. Whether a second meeting will be

held is unknown.

In the meantime, Japan has offered a few olive branches.

Japan changed the name of its quasi-official Interchange Association on Jan. 1. The association that runs the de facto Japanese embassy in Taipei was renamed the more official-sounding Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association (JTEA). In return, Taiwan was allowed to alter the name of its counterpart organization from the unspecified Association of East Asian Relations to the more specific Association of Taiwan-Japan Relations (AJTR). Taipei was elated, bragging that it was the greatest breakthrough in Taiwan-Japan relations since Tokyo derecognized the Republic of China in 1972. But the "72 Settlement" stands to keep relations between Taiwan and Japan strictly unofficial. This change of names means nothing, a token gesture to please Taiwan's Japanophile politicians.

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