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Troubled Waters Off Taiwan
It may be the weakest competitor for the disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Taiwanese flags adorn fishing boats in Suao Harbor.

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Nevertheless, he says, those fishing grounds “mean our life, how we make money.” Thanks to a strong current, Jian explains, the waters are filled with scomber, Japanese big eye, red sea bream, and shrimp, and there’s enough for fishermen of many nationalities. But until recently, the Japanese government imposed tolls on Taiwanese fishermen, and sometimes even expelled them with water cannons.

Jian says he worries for his two sons. He took them out on the sea with him when they were 15, too, and they followed in their father’s trade. Jian is now a grandfather, and he says that while he hopes his two little grandsons will also be able to fish, he’s afraid that international politics will force them to leave behind the family trade.

As emotional as Jian’s story is, it does little to secure Taiwan’s hold on the islands. Might is the default backer of right in international affairs, and in the East China Sea, conflict is always a possibility, as likely to arise from miscommunication or misunderstanding as from direct calculation. China and Japan are the world’s second- and third-largest economies, and confrontation as a foreign policy makes little sense — but neither did the world wars of the last century.  

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One nail-biting occasion arose in February when Japan claimed that China had trained a missile-guiding radar on one of its vessels, an allegation Beijing denied. Regardless, that was in the winter — and tensions are usually most acute during the fishing season, from spring to early summer, when more vessels from each claimant are in the waters.

The new season has just begun, and no one knows what it will bring. Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, has focused on delaying a determination about the fundamental sovereignty issues, instead proposing the so-called East China Sea Agreement, which would put the emphasis on sharing resources in the disputed territories. That proposal has gathered little acknowledgment, but in early April, Taiwan and Japan did reach a landmark fishing agreement after 17 rounds of discussions. The pact gives Taiwanese fishermen greater flexibility to ply their trade in the disputed area.

Apart from such agreements, Taiwan’s options are slim. Though the country, like both Japan and China, does have a legal justification for its claim, which rests on history and effective and actual control, odds are that Taipei’s argument will never get a hearing in an international tribunal like the International Court of Justice; Taiwan would likely not be recognized as a valid country to begin with.

Already, Taiwan lacks representation at the United Nations. It hasn’t even been allowed observer status like the Palestinians. Taiwan may be an economic success, a flourishing democracy, and an orderly, philanthropic nation — but in terms of international relations, it’s a nonentity.

That, in and of itself, is a powerful criticism of the U.N.-backed international structure that would oversee any efforts at arbitration. The underlying principle of the U.N. is that all countries have an equal interest in maintaining peace and would band together against anyone who disturbs it. But in the East China Sea, claimants’ national interests are contradictory, not common. There’s not even agreement about who the actors are, much less what the situation is. More fundamentally, if the international order supported by the U.N. can’t acknowledge the existence of the world’s most vulnerable nations, then how does it differ from the crude, strength-based international politics of the past?

 — Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.



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