Yilan, Taiwan — On a cool night in late March, a retired fisherman ushered guests into the Temple of Matsu, Taiwan’s goddess of the sea. Surrounded by incense and sculpted dragons, lit by a buzzing blue fluorescent light, the sculpted icon faces the East China Sea. Traditionally, the village presents its offerings to Matsu twice a month, praying for bountiful catches and the safety of its men on the waters. But these days, some also bring a simpler, more fundamental petition: that their way of life, basically unaltered for more than two centuries, will manage to last another generation.
The 106 families who make up the village of Guishan, located in Taiwan’s Yilan Province, find themselves in the midst of a tense geopolitical struggle in the East China Sea. Though the stakes are international, they’re also intensely local: About 96 percent of Guishan’s households support themselves by fishing, but their traditional waters are located in a widely disputed territory about a six-hour boat ride from Taiwan’s northeast coast.
In Taiwan, the disputed islands are known as the Diaoyutai; the other claimants, China and Japan, call them the Diaoyu and the Senkakus, respectively. Sovereignty over the disputed islands has become part of an overall struggle for regional power, and Taiwan is arguably the weakest competitor. Its military is dwarfed by China’s. Moreover, because Beijing asserts that Taiwan is still a part of the mainland, China has wielded its considerable heft to ensure that the small, spunky democracy is excluded from the international community.
For Taiwan’s fishing villages, these sweeping international developments may well result in the death of their own local communities. That’s the fear of Ying-Jun Jian, the retired fisherman who escorted an interpreter and me to the Temple of Matsu. He now spends his days advocating for fishermen’s rights as the chairman of the Yilan Fishermen’s Association and running a museum commemorating his village.
Born in 1951 on a small, turtle-shaped island just off the Taiwanese coast, Jian took up fishing at age 15, like most boys he knew. It was a good life, Jian says, and he misses the overnight trips on the boat where he’d stay up fishing until dawn with his friends.
As had been the rule for generations, the fishermen’s lives were linked to two familiar geographical points. The first was Turtle Island. Home to an active volcano, a saltwater pond, and a freshwater pond, the tiny island really does resemble its namesake topographically; it even has a tail, a long bank that waves back and forth with the tides and weather. During typhoons, that tail is sometimes amputated, and if it failed to grow back in a week, the inhabitants knew the storm would make another round.
The island is beautiful, but the village proved too frail to withstand the weather. After a typhoon destroyed its harbor, the village leaders decided in 1975 to relocate to the nearby mainland of Taiwan. Today, villagers still visit the island on holidays.
When Jian talks about Turtle Island, he flushes with pride: He can recite its highest point (398 meters, or 401 if you count man-made structures) and its unique geographical features, which he has lovingly replicated in a diorama on display at the museum. He hopes that Turtle Island will someday be deemed a World Heritage Site — another recognition so far precluded by Taiwan’s geopolitical isolation.
A short man with a stocky build and an eager smile, Jian gets sadder when he mentions his village’s second geographical anchor, the waters around the disputed islands. He loves them, too, but, adhering to local superstition, he won’t talk about why; the disputed waters are filled with spirits and the ghosts of drowned fishermen, he says, and to speak his love for that stretch of the sea is to risk their revenge.
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.
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.