On May 9, Philippine Coast Guard personnel opened fire on a Taiwanese fishing boat, the Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28, killing Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成), one of the crew. Manila’s failure to demonstrate a sincere desire to resolve the issue means that tensions could worsen. From the provocative and irresponsible attitude it has taken over this affair, it evidently does not regard Taiwan as a sovereign nation. Its subsequent invocation of the “one China” principle was particularly brazen.
China stands to gain the most from this affair. It has not only presumed to pose as Taiwan’s protector, but has also continued to take advantage of Taiwan. Since the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is still jousting with the Philippines, it cannot respond to China’s jibes, much less hit back.
The affair has revealed the sovereignty and human rights crises that Taiwan has found itself in with Ma at the helm and, unless things improve soon, these crises will only deepen. Since Taiwan’s sovereignty status problems are leading to human rights violations, the nation needs to reach out to the international community — in particular the US, which is “returning to Asia” — if it wants to turn things around. The US’ return to the region should not be only in a military sense, it also needs to be in terms of promoting universal human rights. This situation is more than just a standoff between two countries: It is a standoff between two opposing sets of values. However, since Ma took office and announced his “diplomatic truce” policy, Taiwan has had to keep silent in the international community.
The nation needs to be wary of how China might react, not least how the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will react. During the dispute over the Diaoyutais (釣魚台) between Taiwan and Japan, China was quick to try to create a united front with Taiwan based on protecting the islands against the Japanese, while Tokyo did its utmost to prevent Beijing from succeeding.
The Philippines has shown its duplicity by playing the “one China” card, possibly to remind Washington how important it is for the US. The PLA has also moved more quickly than Taiwan, moving its fleet from the East China Sea to the South China Sea on the pretext of conducting naval exercises and sending the fleet it originally had on patrol in the South China Sea to the waters around the Spratlys (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) in preparation for military engagement.
In January, Taiwanese and Japanese coastguard ships were engaged in an altercation in the waters surrounding the Diaoyutais — which Japan calls the Senkakus — in which the two sides fired water cannons at each other. This incident was observed by Chinese surveillance ships reported to have been nearby, apparently waiting for an opportunity to intervene. It is likely that the PLA Navy will also be monitoring the situation when the Republic of China (ROC) Navy conducts military drills in the area to demonstrate its intent to protect Taiwanese fishermen. One also suspects that the PLA Navy will have submarines present, taking notes on the ROC Navy’s military preparedness from below the waves.
There is also a possibility that the PLA Navy will be looking on from the sidelines, perhaps even prepared to instigate an incident between the ROC and Philippine navies, giving it the pretext to get involved and engineer a situation it can characterize as a joint effort by Taiwanese and Chinese forces. Why would China want to do this? Because it would set the two countries against the Philippines, backed by the US, and put cracks in the Taiwan-US-Japan alliance. China would then come out a winner in this fishing dispute.
Taiwan needs to be prepared to fight on two fronts. It will also need to have both its navy and air force ready to deal with any unforeseen developments. The navy drills are not merely a military matter, there is a political element to them too. The National Security Council must not let its guard down and must be prepared to rise to the occasion, especially given the shortcomings in Ma’s leadership.
Retired ROC Air Force general Hsia Ying-chou (夏瀛洲) allegedly told a gathering of retired military officers during a visit to China in 2011 that there should be no distinction between the ROC Army and the PLA, as both are “China’s army.” Hsia is in China right now. One could imagine that he is sitting down at the PLA General Staff Headquarters, exploring the PLA’s options. After all, he knows how the ROC military works and even taught some of Taiwan’s current stock of generals and military commanders. This is yet another factor that the nation’s armed forces need to bear in mind: They should think about varying their approaches to avoid being caught on the back foot.
Paul Lin is a political commentator.
Translated by Paul Cooper