In 2009, the Philippines submitted a claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, seeking to delineate the outer limit of its continental shelf as including the area of the Benham Rise to the east of the Philippines’ biggest island, Luzon. However, it did not submit any claim with regard to the northern limit of its continental shelf, because it knew that its outer limit overlaps with Taiwan’s territory.
Most worthy of attention is the fact that the northern base point submitted by the Philippines in the Benham Rise region is at 19 degrees 51 minutes north — less than 20 degrees north, which is the northern limit of the Philippine archipelago as defined by the 1898 peace treaty between the US and Spain, known as the Treaty of Paris. Filipino policymakers are aware that an unresolved question exists concerning overlapping territory between Taiwan and the Philippines, so they left some room for future negotiations.
The third point to consider is why the Philippines, having clearly known for many years that the two countries have an unresolved problem of overlapping territorial claims, has not been in a hurry to find a solution. Taipei and Manila do not have diplomatic relations, but this is not the reason. Taiwan and the Philippines have signed plenty of agreements, including accords on the promotion and protection of investment, avoidance of double taxation, and scientific and technical cooperation.
It seems that some departments in the Philippines are not in favor of signing an agreement of this sort, because any such agreement would affect their interests. Their interest is in impounding Taiwanese fishing boats that get close to Philippine waters whenever they want and extort payments from their owners. Fisheries disputes between Taiwan and the Philippines have for a long time involved illegal under-the-table dealings, and even some Taiwanese have their fingers in the pie.
The Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 incident has put relations between Taiwan and the Philippines under a lot of stress, but it could also be an opportunity. Only by negotiating and drawing up an agreement delineating their presently overlapping waters, or at least taking temporary measures, can Taiwan and the Philippines prevent more such tragedies.
Chen Hurng-yu is a professor in the Graduate Institute of Asian Studies at Tamkang University.
Translated by Julian Clegg