The Okinotori atoll is seen in this aerial photo taken in April 2005. Photo: Kyodo

Taipei and Tokyo have signed a mutual assistance deal that will allow vessels and rescue staff from either side to enter each other’s territorial waters in the event of a maritime emergency.

The second Taiwan-Japan bilateral meeting on maritime cooperation concluded in Taipei on Wednesday with the signing of a memorandum of understanding on emergency and rescue operations at sea.

But little progress was made on bridging the gap on the issue of the Okinotori atoll.

The agreement will allow Taipei and Tokyo to send help to vessels stranded in each other’s surrounding waters.

“If, for example, a Taiwanese fishing boat had an accident near the Japan-controlled Okinotori atoll and reports it to our fisheries agency, the agency would contact the Japan Coast Guard via a communication channel established by the MOU and it would immediately send help,” a Taiwan maritime official told reporters. He said if a Japanese vessel broke down near Taiwanese territory, the island would also help.

On Thursday Beijing has swiftly issued a protest to Tokyo for entering a government-to-government treaty with a province that it claims is under its suzerainty.

Any deal between Taipei and Tokyo concerning territorial matters draws Beijing’s ire given Japan’s 50 years of occupation of the island till the end of World War II, as well as Shinzō Abe’s rapport with the independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen administration.

That said, disagreement between Taipei and Tokyo over the status of Okinotori atoll persists, but Taipei and Tokyo have agreed to continue the dialogue to ensure fishermen’s safety and conserve fishery resources in the area.

Okinotori atoll, in the Philippine Sea, is over 1,700 kilometers south of Tokyo, which claims its sovereignty as well as a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone around it. However, Taipei and Beijing both insist the atoll does not meet the United Nations’ definition of an island and does not justify an exclusive economic zone.

There is a large overlap of conflicting claims from Taipei, Tokyo and Beijing over islands and reefs in the East China Sea. The most notable dispute relates to ownership of the Diaoyu Islands, or the Senkakus in Japanese parlance.

Uotsuri (top), Minamikojima (bottom) and Kitakojima make up three of the five Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyus, as they are referred to in China. Photo: Reuters

Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen administration has refused to take a legal stance on classification of the atoll until the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf delivers a ruling, but it urges Japan to respect the rights of Taiwan and other nations to fish and navigate freely in the area.

“Taiwan and Japan have their own stances on the atoll, which is why it is not easy to resolve the matter. Although both sides have demonstrated sincerity and goodwill in addressing the issue, a satisfactory result cannot be expected after only one or two rounds of talks,” the same official said.

The first maritime cooperation meeting took place in Tokyo in October last year, after a dialogue mechanism was established amid growing tension between the two sides following the Japan Coast Guard’s seizure in April last year of a Taiwanese fishing boat operating about 150 nautical miles east-southeast of the Okinotori atoll.

Analysts say Okinotori is effectively under Tokyo’s jurisdiction and Taipei is unlikely to stir up fresh animosity for the barren atoll, for the sake of amicable ties with Tokyo, especially amid Beijing’s diplomatic and military containment of the island.

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