There have been reports that the first stage of fisheries talks between Taiwan and the Philippines are complete. The legal counsel of the Malacanang Palace, the presidential office of the Philippines, is deliberating on a draft Taiwan-Philippine fisheries enforcement cooperation agreement. Both governments have issued statements that acknowledge an urgency in signing the agreement. Indeed, talks are better than no talks.
There are several reasons for this round of talks. When Taiwanese fishing boat Sheng Fong No. 12 made an “innocent passage” on May 7, it was detained by the Philippines near the Batan Islands. Taipei was forced to help pay its penalty. On May 25, when fishing boat Ming Chin Tsai No. 6 was operating within the southern boundary of Taiwan’s temporary enforcement line, it was boarded by Philippine Coast Guard personnel and just barely avoided being confiscated. On May 28, when fishing boat Sheng Yu Feng was merely cruising through the same region, it caught the attention of a Philippine Coast Guard vessel that attempted to board the ship and detain the crew.
Within just a month, Manila violated international law on three separate occasions.
Manila insisted that the incidents occurred in its territorial waters and even emphasized its claim that overlapping exclusive economic zones between it and Taiwan belong to the Philippines.
In terms of international law, the Philippines has extended its territorial waters beyond 200 nautical miles (370km) and labeled these areas the internal waters of the Philippines. Moreover, Manila forbids foreign fishing boats from passing through its territorial waters, unless the vessels have applied for permission or reported to the Philippines in advance. However, none of these measures conform with international law. Hence, even the US, which has an otherwise close relationship with the Philippines, has expressed its opposition through diplomatic channels.
Data published by the US Department of Defense shows that for the past several years, the US Navy has continuously carried out its freedom of navigation program in waters claimed by the Philippines, a program that the US Department of State said intends to “promote maritime stability and consistency with international law.”
As for Taiwan, putting many of its past grievances with the Philippines aside, the nation suffers the most from Philippine interference in fishing boat navigation and fishing rights. Ironically, while negotiations are in progress, Taipei has urged Taiwanese to adhere to the laws of the Philippines.
Does the government wish to create a precedent and recognize the territorial waters claimed by the Philippines?
The nation must not forget that Taipei and Manila signed the Agreement on Sea Lane Passage and the Memorandum on Agriculture and Fisheries Cooperation between the Republic of China (ROC) and the Philippines in 1991.
However, in 1998, the Philippines unilaterally abrogated this agreement after amending its Fisheries Code that year.
In 2013, Taiwanese fisherman Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成) was shot and killed by Philippine Coast Guard personnel, causing widespread anger in Taiwan, which was followed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ announcement that it had signed a conclusive document from a fisheries conference between Taiwan and the Philippines, saying that according to this document, the Philippines must notify Taiwan one hour before it boards a Taiwanese boat for investigation. The result? During the three incidents this year, the Philippines did not notify Taiwan at all.
Granted, a conclusion is not a legal document, but such behavior makes Manila politically untrustworthy.
It is not difficult to see through the Philippines’ plotting. Its claim of territorial waters is a violation of international law. Through forceful law enforcement, it attempts to frighten Taiwanese boats so they would not risk operating in the overlapping territorial waters, which is akin to Taiwan giving up existing fishing grounds.
Moreover, Taiwanese fishing boats are forced to obey Philippine regulations that are inconsistent with international law and to notify the Philippines before passing through these waters.
This is the same as putting Taiwan at the mercy of Manila, leaving Taiwanese fishing boats no choice but to avoid these waters.
However, Philippine law enforcement capability is insufficient, so Manila enters into diplomatic agreements to achieve results it cannot through other means.
War is dangerous and harmful, so decisionmaking must not be based on impulsive reactions and peace must be sought whenever possible.
However, if the lives and fortunes of Taiwanese are lost as a result of illegal actions of other nations, it is not right to maintain inaction either. Especially when it comes to maritime rights: Inaction or tolerance will be deemed as acknowledgment or acquiescence under international law, which could jeopardize Taiwan’s rights.
If it is still not feasible to reach an agreement that could actually protect the rights of Taiwanese fishermen, Taiwan could borrow from the US’ freedom of navigation program, or dispatch several warships to carry out small-scale, concentrated defense missions safeguarding Taiwanese fishing boats and fishing rights.
Until Manila stop its illegal behavior, if Philippine law-enforcement ships are found in the overlapping waters, Taiwan must be ready for confrontation at any time so Manila has no choice other than to revise its laws.
Otherwise, despite its advantage over the Philippines in military power, law enforcement and economic strength, Taiwan would likely remain powerless to resolve the difficult situation of its fishermen. The Coast Guard Administration’s patrol boats, which cost billions of New Taiwan dollars to build and operate, will be good for nothing but display and — since the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been working hard on the matter — will remain silently at port, while the basic rights of Taiwanese fishermen are forfeited.
Chiang Huang-chih is a professor of law at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Ethan Zhan
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