TAIPEI--The confrontation between a fishing boat carrying Taiwanese activists and the Japan Coast Guard near the Senkaku Islands on Jan. 24 indicates Taiwan's intention to press its territorial claim over the area.
The fishing boat, accompanied by four Taiwanese cutters, entered the contiguous zone off Japan's territorial waters around the islands, but was chased off by the Japan Coast Guard using a water cannon. The uninhabited islands, called Diaoyutai in Taiwan, are effectively administered by Japan but are claimed by both Taiwan and China.
Circumstances clearly indicate the activists had the approval of the administration of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, and the incident is expected to inevitably overshadow bilateral fishery talks, a longstanding issue between the two countries.
The "Chinese Association for Protecting the Diaoyutais," which sent the fishing boat, is a group of political activists, four of whom hold fishery certificates. Taiwan's Coast Guard Administration said there was no reason to block the boat from leaving port, because the action was lawful.
In the past, the Ma administration, out of consideration for Japan, pressured activists to dissuade them from leaving port, but it scrapped that policy in June after the sovereignty issue surfaced.
A Taiwanese Foreign Ministry source indicated the authorities approved the latest departure because the Ma administration was eager to assert Taiwan's role and presence at a time when the United States, Japan's ally, and China have come to loggerheads over the Senkakus issue.
"We have to assert ourselves whenever China takes a strong stand," the ministry source said.
But Taipei has also been careful not to give the impression, either at home or abroad, that China and Taiwan are joining hands over the Senkakus dispute.
According to Taiwanese Coast Guard Administration officials, one Taiwanese cutter came as close as 0.3 nautical mile to a Chinese marine surveillance vessel at one point on Jan. 24. Taiwan used both voice and an electronic signboard to call on the Chinese cutter to leave, saying that Diaoyutai is part of the Republic of China (Taiwan).
Though the fishing boat was blocked from actually entering Japanese territorial waters, the incident has still come as a shock to concerned Japanese officials.
"Why did they do that precisely at this time?" asked one visibly shaken official at the Interchange Association Japan, Tokyo's de facto diplomatic mission to Taiwan.
Japan and Taiwan opened preliminary talks in late November to coordinate fishing rights, including in waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands, and were expected to hold a second meeting before the Lunar New Year holidays of mid-February. The Interchange Association filed protests over the incident with the relevant Taiwanese authorities.
Su Chii-cherng, deputy director-general of the Department of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry, told a news conference on Jan. 24 that the fishery talks may be postponed.
It is believed that such a postponement is well within the calculations of the Ma administration. Ma has shown more interest in sovereignty claims than in fishing rights, although he has said he will stand up for Taiwan's fishermen.
Few of those fishermen believe the absence of a fishery agreement between Taipei and Tokyo will pose a major problem, because Japan has already eased its maritime patrols and is turning a blind eye to Taiwanese fishing operations in broad areas.
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