As a former US diplomat with a keen interest in Taiwan and its future, I am concerned about the present row between Taipei and Manila over the sad and unfortunate death of Taiwanese fisherman Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成) after an encounter between a Taiwanese fishing boat and the Philippine Coast Guard on May 9.
Emotions are running high and angry accusations are being leveled in both directions. This is unfortunate and could have been avoided if everyone had maintained a cool head and proceeded in a reasonable and rational manner.
First and foremost, it is important that a clear and objective assessment of what actually happened be established. The Philippines is taking a lead in that, but Taiwan can help by not jumping to conclusions or making fiery accusations. Terms like “cold-blooded murder” — found on the front page of the Web site of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — are seen as premature by the international community (certainly before an investigation) and unhelpful.
To come to a mutually agreeable settlement, the Philippines must go out of its way to establish the truth, but Taiwan must go the extra mile not to be confrontational. In diplomacy it is always better if both sides participate in a give-and-take. Hard and fast ultimatums do not help and are counterproductive.
Instead, the two sides need to reduce the tension and tone down the rhetoric. As the US Department of State recently said: Washington is concerned by the increase in tensions between two neighboring democracies and close partners of the US in the Asia-Pacific region, and urges the two countries to take all appropriate measures to clarify disagreements and prevent the recurrence of tragic events. The State Department also urged both parties to refrain from actions that could further escalate tensions in the region and undermine the prospects for a rapid and effective resolution of differences.
However, there is another aspect that worries me: the role of China. One of the reasons why the Filipinos are edgy about their territorial waters is that China has been aggressively encroaching into areas that have traditionally been under control of the Philippines, such as the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島).
The incident thus plays into China’s hands. Right after the altercation, Xinhua news agency reported that China’s Taiwan Affairs Office was condemning the event as a “barbaric act.”
Quoting a Chinese academic, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Beijing Times said: “China has reiterated over time that Taiwan is an integral part of China. Now is a good opportunity to show that China will not tolerate the shooting of our fishermen, whether they are from the mainland or Taiwan, and that our government is determined to protect the life of its people.”
Taiwan must make clear that it is rejecting such united front tactics and that it is not aligning itself with China in an attempt to push Manila into a corner.
Taiwan and the Philippines are both democracies. This means that both have to be sensitive to the voices of the people, but it also means that there must be leadership and vision, and decisions and actions should not be guided by angry emotions or vitriolic nationalism.
A way out is possible if both sides agree to examine the evidence in a rational and objective fashion. The Philippines needs to be forthcoming with all information pertaining to the chain of events that led to the shooting and Taiwan needs to display patience and calm. It needs to avoid inflammatory language that increases tensions -— cooler heads must prevail.