TAIPEI--The flotilla of Taiwanese fishing boats that encroached on Japanese territorial waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands on Sept. 25 highlighted a weak point in otherwise cordial relations between Japan and Taiwan: the unresolved issue of fishing rights in the surrounding areas.
The Senkakus, a group of five uninhabited islands and reefs in the East China Sea, are administered by Japan but claimed by both China and Taiwan, which call them Diaoyu and Diaoyutai, respectively.
A fleet of some 40 fishing boats, accompanied by 12 Taiwanese patrol vessels, illegally entered the waters to protest Japan's Sept. 11 purchase of three of the uninhabited islands from private ownership, making them state property.
The boats left the territorial waters by noon.
Taiwanese television aired images of Japanese patrol vessels blocking the vessels, fueling public antipathy.
"We have been obliged to meet in very regrettable circumstances," Taiwan's foreign minister, Yang Chin-tien, told Tadashi Imai, director of the Interchange Association, Japan (AIJ), sullenly when they met at his office in Taipei on Sept. 25. The AIJ is Japan's de facto diplomatic mission in Taiwan.
Yang's opening remark suggested that Taiwan blames Japan for the disruption in bilateral relations caused by its acquisition of the islands.
Japan sent Shinsuke Sugiyama, director-general of the Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, to China on Sept. 11 to explain the government's decision. It neglected to offer the same courtesy to Taiwan.
"In the end, it seems that Japan counts on the pro-Japanese sentiment in Taiwan and is making light of it," said one disgruntled Taiwanese diplomatic source.
According to the Japan Coast Guard, three Taiwanese patrol vessels fired water cannon successively at its cutters between 9:30 a.m. and 9:50 a.m. on Sept. 25. Earlier, the Japan Coast Guard fired water cannon at Taiwanese fishing boats to block their way after they ignored warnings and intruded into Japanese territorial waters.
The AIJ filed a protest with Taiwanese authorities, saying Taiwan's actions infringed on international common law on the inviolability of government vessels.
Taiwan's Coast Guard Administration challenges that view. "We are protecting the safety of our people and their vessels on the basis of law," a Coast Guard Administration official told The Asahi Shimbun on Sept. 25 in reference to the use of water cannon by Taiwanese patrol vessels.
"If Japan obstructs us, we eliminate that obstruction on the same level."
Since 1996, Japan and Taiwan have held talks on 16 occasions to work out a fisheries agreement.
Taiwanese fishing operations around the Senkaku Islands date back to when Taiwan was under Japan's colonial rule (1895-1945).
Tokyo and Taipei never agreed on whether the waters around the Senkakus are a "traditional fishing ground" for Taiwanese fishermen.
Talks on the issue have not been held for more than three years.
When Japan began floating the idea of government ownership of the islands, the Taiwanese fishermen took that as a sign that Japan planned to intensify its control over the rich fishing grounds.
Resentment runs deep because even before the latest development, Taiwanese fishing boats were seized by Japanese authorities and fined large sums.
The 330,000 people working in Taiwan's fishing industry account for only 3 percent of the island's entire workforce.
The ruling Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), led by President Ma Ying-jeou, emphasizes a conciliatory stance toward China, whereas the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party focuses more on Taiwan's identity and is generally wary of China.
However, both political forces share the basic position that the interests of the fishermen should be protected.
China's state media have given scant attention to the issue of Taiwanese fishing rights.
Hong Lei, deputy director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Press and Media Service, limited himself to a formulaic remark during a regular news conference.
The waters around the Senkakus are "a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen," he said.
Speaking of the lukewarm response of the Chinese government, one political scientist in Beijing said, "The Chinese government is being careful not to draw angry reactions from Taiwan by openly showing its intention to stage a cross-strait rapprochement (over the Senkaku Islands issue)."
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