TAIPEI— Japan gave Taiwan an unusual break this week in a stubborn ocean territorial dispute that also involves China. The first-ever concession met with applause in Taipei and a word of warning from Beijing. Japan controls the waters, but China and Taiwan both make unwavering claims.
Taiwan had pushed Japan for expanded fishing rights since 1996, vying with Tokyo and China for control of a massive stretch of the East China Sea believed rich in fisheries and natural gas.
On Wednesday talks reached a breakthrough, when Japan agreed to give Taiwanese fishing boats unconditional use of 4,530 more square kilometers of contested ocean.
The fisheries concession does not affect Japan’s four decades of control over the contested sea area, which is anchored by eight uninhabited islets. But the move signals that Japan wants relatively small Taiwan on its side, not China’s.
China has sent planes and allowed destructive mass protests to assert its claim since last year, when Japan nationalized the disputed islets it calls the Senkakus.
Nathan Liu, international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan, says Japan was afraid Taiwan would team up with China.
"I think it’s because of what happened last year, because of the nationalization of the Senkaku islands, and China became more aggressive," he said. "So Japan worried about the cooperation between Taiwan and China. So that’s the reason why they compromised a little bit.”
China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, urged Japan Wednesday to follow its pledges to recognize only one China and carefully handle issues involving Taiwan. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan and forbids its 170 diplomatic allies, including Japan, from activity that suggests Taiwan is a separate country.
Taiwan’s relations with China have improved since 2008 despite Beijing’s claims of sovereignty and Taiwan’s continued self-rule, though officials in Taipei say they are not allied with Beijing in the maritime dispute.
Japan, the world’s third largest economy, already spars with China, the second largest, on a host of other political and historical issues. Japan considers Taiwan a close informal ally, especially during heated disputes with China.
The fisheries breakthrough was received well in Taiwan, where President Ma Ying-jeou has been criticized for doing too little on diplomacy.
Anna Kao, spokeswoman for the foreign ministry in Taipei, says the fisheries deal followed Taiwan’s efforts to improve ties with Japan.
She says Taiwan has been gradually pushing for improved relations with Japan and only on that foundation were the two sides able to reach consensus on fishing rights.
Taiwanese fishing boats have historically trawled the disputed waters that are 222 kilometers east of Taipei but would be turned away by Japanese coast guard vessels.
Local media reported that the fishing industry was ecstatic about the rights deal as about 800 vessels make their way to the disputed ocean area every year.