The first Taiwan-Japan Maritime Affairs Cooperation Dialogue, held in Tokyo on October 31, covered bilateral cooperation on a range of issues such as fisheries, maritime search and rescue, and marine technology. The issues raised were some of the same as those raised by Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen in an interview with the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun on October 6 when she said that Taiwan and Japan have many of the same problems and interests in common as maritime countries. Addressing these commonalities could help the two sides to deepen their “quasi maritime alliance partnership.”

The dialogue was originally scheduled for late July but was reportedly postponed because Taiwan needed more time to prepare. Observers, however, believe that this was not the real reason, and that the postponement was related to changes in the cross-strait situation with China. After pressure from Beijing led the International Civil Aviation Organization to block Taiwan from participating in a conference in September and President Tsai’s October 10 National Day address failed to satisfy Beijing, Taiwan and Japan decided a show of respect for the Tsai government was necessary and decided to activate the mechanism for the cooperation dialogue.

Chiou I-jen, chairman of the Association of East Asian Relations, personally led a delegation to Tokyo, demonstrating the great importance that the Tsai government attaches to bilateral dialogue and future cooperation on maritime affairs. Such bilateral dialogue is not limited solely to maritime affairs, and indeed the less apparent maritime strategic cooperation discussion is much more important. A look at the personnel on each negotiation team shows the pairing of counterparts – the chairs of the Association of East Asian Relations and the Interchange Association (Japan) as delegation leaders, followed by representatives from both Fisheries Agencies, Coast Guards, Foreign Ministries, and Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). The only difference was the Taiwanese delegation’s inclusion of National Security Council members, an indication that Taiwan views the bilateral maritime dialogue as being at the high level of national security strategy and not just a simple collaboration on maritime affairs. The Maritime Affairs Cooperation Dialogue provides a forum for this kind of strategic thinking.

The dialogue covered three areas of cooperation – fishery, maritime search, and marine science and technology. The meeting did not address disputes over overlapping maritime claims, an issue that can be better dealt with via the Taiwan-Japan Fishery Agreement reached on April 10, 2013. But the fishing industry question put the entire meeting at risk, with a long-standing debate over fishing in waters off Okinotori Island—around which Japan claims a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ)—threatening to derail the dialogue. The negotiations appeared to be headed for a stalemate, as Taiwan faced strong domestic pressure to clarify whether Taiwanese fishing boats could in fact fish in the waters around Okinotori, which many in Taiwan feel does not legally generate an EEZ.

But the Japanese government recognized the political difficulties of the Taiwanese delegation, and since neither side wanted to see the entire maritime dialogue mechanism collapse over this controversy, the Japanese government chose to set up a task force on fishery cooperation—including fishing in the waters off Okinotori—which will resume consultations in spring 2017 as the fishing season draws closer. The Taiwanese delegation approved and both sides agreed to sincerely pursue fishery industry cooperation in other areas.

On top of this success, both sides also agreed to hold a plenary meeting once a year. If necessary, task force meetings may be convened on top of the annual meeting with mutual approval. The second meeting was set to take place in Taiwan in 2017, and the countries will establish a taskforce on scientific ocean surveys (in addition to one that already exists on fishery industry cooperation). Yet as of the writing of this article, on the website of Japan’s Interchange Association, no Okinotori Island-related issues have been announced. Obviously Japan is not ready to take the Okinotori issue to the negotiating table and threaten the friendly atmosphere between the two sides.

Of course, bilateral maritime affairs are not limited solely to Okinotori Island affairs, and future dialogues can address a range of issues. Aside from establishing a risk management platform for bilateral maritime issues, the dialogue promotes linkages and cooperation between the competent maritime affairs authorities on both sides. For rescue at sea, for instance, the Taiwan Coast Guard Administration and the Japan Coast Guard can jointly coordinate, while marine research will bring together marine science research vessels under Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology and the marine science capabilities of Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. It is hoped that the dialogue mechanism will serve as a platform that will direct dialogue and collaboration in the next two years in the three areas described above.

About Tinghui Lin

Ting-Hui Lin is the vice president of the Prospect Foundation, Taiwan. Prior to this, Lin was vice president of Taiwan Brain Trust (TBT) and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Maritime Police at Taiwan’s Central Police University. Lin served as research staff on Taiwan’s National Security Council from 2005 to 2008. His research areas include the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Pacific Islands.