Taiwan and the Philippines have had numerous fishing disputes over the years and several Taiwanese fishing boats have been detained by the Philippine navy. Even though the two countries have agreed on a boundary, aggressive Taiwanese fishing boats often cross that line when chasing schools of fish. This long-running dispute was in the headlines this week due to escape of six out of eight Taiwanese fishing boats detained in the Philippines for illegal fishing.
Both Taipei and Manila have been embarrassed by the escapes. The Philippine government was humiliated by the ease in which the boats fled one by one, as if the escapes had been carefully planned or perhaps achieved through bribery. Manila, after diplomatic negotiations with Taipei, had agreed to allow detained Taiwanese crews to remain on their boats instead of holding them in custody. Those negotiations had helped Taiwanese fishermen receive better treatment from the Philippine navy than their colleagues from China or other countries. In return, Taipei had promised that its fishing crews would respect local law.
While the families of the fishermen have been understandably happy to welcome their loved ones home, the crews' escape could damage the government's efforts to work out new fishing accords, with the Philippines as well as other countries.
Even though the fishermen have accused the Philippine military of thuggish behavior and called this country's government "impotent and weak-kneed," the crux of the problem is the Taiwanese boats trespassing into Philippine territory. The Manila government has rarely been thuggish or unreasonable in its dealings with Taiwan, ever since the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos was replaced by democracy. But the bilateral relations have not always been smooth due to the lack of diplomatic relations and Manila's frequent buckling under pressure from Beijing.
Taiwan and the Philippines signed a fishing agreement in 1991, which set two routes of passage for Taiwanese fishing boats. However, in 1998, the Philippines passed a new marine territory law that banned foreign fishing boats from its territory. That law effectively nullified the agreement with Taipei and led to the recurrence of fishing disputes.
Facing a languishing economy at home and a bullying China, the Philippines naturally places priority on its own self-interest. The predicament of the Philippine authorities is understandable. That's why Taiwan's government has tried to resolve disputes through gentle approaches rather than acting tough and creating even more tension. In the same vein, the Philippines has shown basic goodwill toward Taiwan because of its economic and neighborly needs. The substantive bilateral relations between the two nations are based on this consensus of mutual benefit.
In recent years, Taipei has tried to negotiate a new fishing agreement with Manila. However, Council of Agriculture officials admit progress has been slow. The two sides disagree on technical details and the "one China" issue is a stumbling point as well.
In the meantime, the government should put more effort into educating this nation's fishermen. It should also step up naval and aerial patrols to warn fishing boats that have crossed the boundary line. It should also, however, be willing to protect the fishermen at sea from being detained without cause by the Philippine navy.