Fishermen and officials in Taiwan say Japan's maritime agencies appear to be going soft after earlier challenging and turning back Taiwanese fishing vessels in waters some distance from the disputed Senkaku Islands.
The Japanese government denies any change in policy, but Taiwanese fishermen report being able to operate freely in some areas where until now Japanese patrol vessels would intercept them. They welcome the change as a sign of goodwill by Tokyo.
The Senkakus, five uninhabited islets and reefs in the East China Sea, are administered by Japan but are claimed by both China and Taiwan, which call them Diaoyu and Diaoyutai, respectively.
The Fisheries Agency, which is tasked with cracking down on illegal fishing, says fishing by Taiwanese boats in Japan's exclusive economic zone constitutes a violation of law, even if the vessels remain outside Japan's territorial waters and contiguous zone. That is because no fishing accord has yet been concluded with Taipei.
Tokyo defines Japan's exclusive economic zone with a median line drawn between the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan. The Fisheries Agency and the Japan Coast Guard have in the past told foreign fishing boats found inside Japan's exclusive economic zone to leave.
But officials at the Su-ao Fishermen's Association in Taiwan's Yilan county, whose members operate in the area around the Senkakus, said they have noted a change.
Previously, Japanese patrol vessels would challenge Taiwanese fishing boats with a warning and then chase them away upon entering the contiguous zone, which extends 20-24 nautical miles from land and lies well within Japan's exclusive economic zone.
Recently, however, fishermen have only been receiving warnings when entering Japan's territorial waters, 12 nautical miles from land, the officials said.
Observers said the change was likely prompted by a protest Sept. 25 by a Su-ao fishing fleet in the waters around the Senkakus.
Taiwan not only claims the Senkakus, which lie north of the Yaeyama Islands, the westernmost component of the Okinawa island chain, it additionally rejects Japan's claim of waters further south. Taiwan insists on a boundary line of its own that overlaps Japan's median line south of the Yaeyama Islands.
The fishermen's association officials said they have perceived a change in those southern waters, too. They said Japan's government vessels have backed off, eastward, as if they had decided to patrol only along the boundary claimed by Taiwan.
"This is one achievement of ours, after our backlash against Japan," said a source in the Taiwanese administration of President Ma Ying-jeou, referring to Taiwanese protests over Japan's control of the Senkaku islands.
Meanwhile, the Fisheries Agency has begun deploying an additional vessel this year in Japan's territorial waters around the Senkakus.
"There is no change in our policy of control," an agency representative said.
But patrol vessels of the Japan Coast Guard, which is tasked with guarding territorial waters, are now tied up confronting Chinese government vessels trespassing in Japanese territorial waters on an apparently routine basis since late last year.
Still, a senior Japan Coast Guard official insisted there is no change in the coast guard's policy of preventing illegal actions by Taiwanese fishing boats.
Although Chinese government vessels are frequenting the waters around the Senkakus, Chinese fishing boats are relatively rare in the area. It is mostly Taiwanese fishing boats that use the waters to catch fish such as mackerel.
Few Taiwanese fishermen operate there during the winter because of rough seas. Taiwanese officials and fishermen plan to watch carefully whether Tokyo will maintain its current stance from the spring, when fishing becomes easier.
(This article was written by Takio Murakami in Taipei and Ryuji Kudo.)
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