Japan's seizure of Taiwanese fishing boat unfair: The China Post

Mr Pan Chung-chiu (right), the owner of a Taiwan fishing boat detained by Japan, painting a red cross on a map over the location of the Okinotori Island during a protest by Taiwan fishermen in front of Japan's representative office in Taipei, Taiwan,
Mr Pan Chung-chiu (right), the owner of a Taiwan fishing boat detained by Japan, painting a red cross on a map over the location of the Okinotori Island during a protest by Taiwan fishermen in front of Japan's representative office in Taipei, Taiwan, on April 27, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

In its editorial on April 29, the newspaper refutes Tokyo's claim that it was defending its territory around the Okinotori atoll.

There is no question that Japan, as a world power, has pushed its small neighbour Taiwan into a corner, as we have seen in the days following Japanese authorities' seizure of a Taiwanese fishing boat and the detainment of its captain. 

While Japan claims it was defending its territory from Taiwanese encroachment, in reality this is far from the truth.

Japan insists Okinotori atoll, the tiny reef area south of Tokyo known as Okinotorishima in Japan, is an "island" - which thus entitles it to proclaim a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around it.

Status as an island would allow Tokyo to claim 160,000 sq nautical miles of ocean, an area larger than the entire landmass of Japan itself.

The claim is simply not plausible according to ocean law.

Based on conditions laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Okinotori is a reef, not an island, since it is only the size of two beds (9.9 sq m).

It cannot sustain human habitation and economic activity, nor can it qualify as a natural island.

The "island" originally consisted of no more than two rocks above water level, each the size of a bed.

What we see today is the result of the rocks being concretised for years - a deliberate attempt to circumvent international law via a "natural island-building process" starting in 1989.

President Ma Ying-jeou, in a fierce and just defence of the area's status as open water, cried foul and called Japan's definition of the reef as an island an "illegal expansion of power" that would not be recognised by the government.

The Ma government had ordered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to lodge a protest with Japan and demand the release of the ship and its crew.

But it is going to take more than that to safeguard the rights of the fisherman, and defend their freedom to fish in international waters near the Okinotori atoll.

Taiwan needs international support.

Besides submitting a formal complaint to high-level international organisations, global attention needs to be directed to the extent that Japan bullied Taiwan as an excuse for muscle flexing and the advancement of national interests.

Japan's position is similar to a failed British attempt to claim an EEZ around the Rockall Plateau, granite outcropping in the Atlantic.

London eventually relinquished its claim in the 1990s when other countries objected. 

Experts have largely given Beijing a bad rap over its efforts to furiously develop and expand the areas of some of its islands in the South China Sea.

Japan was in fact among the nations that bashed Beijing for claiming the EEZ around the islands, ironically enough, stating it had denied freedom of the seas.

Also, Japan's reclamation began in 1987, well before Beijing's alleged land grab activities.

Tensions in the South China Sea have escalated in recent years, in which Taiwan has also been an active claimant.

However, Taiwan had never resorted to towing and detaining vessels and sailors in the disputed waters.

Despite close ties established between the two nations and maintained for decades, Japan's aggressive move risks damaging the friendly diplomatic relations they share with Taiwan.

The event may serve to prove the adage that when touching upon some issues, there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.

But it is in the favour of both parties that Japan and Taiwan sustain the mutual admiration and support they showed to each other in the past, including respect for one another's territory, and mutual recognition of interests.

* The China Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 newspapers.