Taiwan – Philippines high seas-turned-diplomatic-kerfuffle

I was speaking to folks back home and mentioned the recent incident between Taiwan and the Philippines in conversation.  This failed to elicit any response, which is when I realized that the western media hasn’t reported much of what happened, and people back home are unaware of this potentially explosive situation.  It’s huge news in Asia right now with every armchair pundit and blog commenting on it, so here’s a synopsis of what’s going on.

What happened:

  • May 9, 2013, 4 Taiwanese fishing vessels were spotted in the overlapping EEZ (exclusive economic zone – fishing area claimed by both countries).
  • The Filipino coastguard vessel hailed the Taiwanese vessels for boarding, but the Taiwanese vessels turned around and headed toward Taiwanese waters.
  • After a four hour chase, the coastguard vessel opened fire on one of the boats – in order to disable it’s engines, they claimed.
  • During the strafing (52 odd bullet holes were found), a Taiwanese fisherman was killed.

Aftermath:

  • At first, the Filipino navy denied all involvement in the incident.  Within 24 hrs. the Filipino coastguard claimed responsibility, saying that the fishing boat had tried to ram the coastguard vessel.
  • Filipino authorities said condolences were due, but not an apology.
  • Taipei, naturally enraged, laid down an ultimatum demanding an official apology from Manila, compensation for the family of the deceased, charges against the offending crew and a negotiation over firming up fishing boundaries (the current EEZ’s overlap, with ambiguity over who has rights where).
  • Manila sent an apology, but more of a personal one because it doesn’t officially recognize Taiwan as a country, just a “province” of  China – any official apology would have to be made to Beijing.
  • Taiwan rejected the apology and imposed sanctions against the Philippines among which are – freezing all applications for Filipino workers to Taiwan  (a large percentage of Filipino workers work in Taiwan – for less money than Taiwanese), travel advisories recommending Taiwanese tourists not visit the Philippines, recalling their envoy and sending the Filipino envoy back, ceasing economic relations with the Philippines and sending naval vessels and fighter jets to conduct “military exercises” in the water between the 2 countries.
  • Taiwan condemns the incident as murder
  • Taiwan and the Philippines are conducting separate investigations into the matter.  The Philippines is said to have a videotape of some of the incident, but they are not making it public yet.

Resulting actions:

  • Tensions between peoples of both countries have escalated.
  • Flag burning and protests have occured on both sides.
  • The Taiwanese government has urged Taiwanese to refrain from venting their anger on the Filipinos currently residing in Taiwan.
  • A Filipino worker worker was set upon in southern Taiwan and badly beaten.
  • A Taiwanese investigative team sent to the Philippines was not recieved at the airport, and after a few days returned to Taiwan claiming that the Filipino investigators were dishonest and evasive.
  • Some of the more extreme and militant voices were calling for war.

International reactions:

  • The US has refused to take sides before the investigations are fully completed stating only that they hope this issue is peacefully solved by the two parties involved.
  • China has lent it’s support to Taiwan and condemned the Filipino action against the Taiwanese.

So what?

From what I’ve read so far, the boats were discovered in the overlapping EEZ, so right off the bat, both sides claim jurisdiction.  The Filipino claim that the fishing vessel tried to ram a coastguard vessel seems ludicrous, plus, no signs of ramming damage were found.  In addition, strafing a 4 man crew boat with an automatic weapon seems a bit heavy handed.

Granted, one of the problems here is the fact that there is no clear border between Taiwanese and Filipino waters, so it’s hard to say who was in the right, but having an armed, clearly superior vessel firing on an unarmed fishing boat seems suspect.

Added to that, witholding the video footage of the incident looks very odd on the part of the Philippines – if they are right, then what’s the harm in making it available?

This, of course, does not excuse the actions of those Taiwanese who have taken up a personal crusade against the Filipinos living in Taiwan.  The beating of Filipinos is shamefully racist and a blight on Taiwan.  A point in favour of Taiwan is that the government has urged the people to refrain from this behaviour and lay the blame with those responsible – not the innocents who have nothing to do with the incident.

Some say that Taiwan’s hard stance on this issue isn’t just based on the incident, but is being used by the currently ruling KMT party (which isn’t exactly in favour right now) to gain support for the next election by showing itself to be hard and fast on Taiwanese interests.

Another issue here seems to lie in the fact that since Taiwan is not officially recognized, Manila CANNOT offer an official apology to Taipei without raising the ire of the awakening dragon (China) to the north.  China is a power, and the Philippines has it’s hands tied even if it wanted to offer an apology to Taiwan.

Currently the situation is in a deadlock with people waiting for the respective investigations to be finished.  According to a recent report in the Taipei times, neither side trusts the other’s findings and it’s likely that an international mediator (the US) will likely be needed to resolve this stalled situation.

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