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May 30, 2017

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Fishing pact a breakthrough, yet sovereignty issue lingers

It took a long time — 17 years in fact — to half-solve the issue of fishing rights in waters that Taiwanese fishermen used to call "No Man's Land," and that they were free to fish in before 1972. The area is dominated by the Diaoyutai Islands, which the Japanese claimed in 1895 as terra nullius, which in Latin means "land belonging to no one." Taiwan's long-line fishermen were given fishing rights to this area by the Tokyo High Court in 1918, but after the eight tiny uninhabited islets were restored to Japan as part of the Okinawa Islands in 1972, their access was cut. As a result, fishery negotiations started in 1996. After 16 rounds of talks, a fishing agreement was signed in the 17th round in Taipei last Wednesday.

The 17th round was delayed for four years after a fishing boat from Suao was rammed by a Japanese patrol vessel and sank off Uotsurijima, of what the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands, in 2008. There was not a chance the talks would have resumed if ultranationalist Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara had not announced plans to purchase three of the Senkakus — to defend them against an imaginary Chinese takeover — in April last year. Things changed rapidly. Then-Prime Minister Yoshiko Noda declared a nationalization of the three Senkaku islets in September, which kicked off a sovereignty row between Japan, China and Taiwan.

Afraid Taiwan and China would team up in a confrontation with Japan over the dispute, Tokyo decided to resume fishery talks. Two preliminary discussions were held in Tokyo in November and last month prior to the last round of talks, in which the fishery pact was signed.

Asked if Tokyo made concessions in the talks to sign the pact, former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui, who after leaving office proclaimed that the Senkakus belong to Japan, said that Japan did. He added, however, that "Japan had gone too far (in wronging Taiwan), but after the Great East Japan Earthquake (because of the massive relief support from Taiwan) the Japanese reflected on their past conduct, and their reflection was expressed in the concessions Tokyo made in the conclusion of the fishery agreement. Japan couldn't but make concessions."

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