Fishing grounds must be respected

By Chen Hurng-Yu 陳鴻瑜  / 

Sat, May 18, 2013 - Page 8

However the Philippines chooses to account for the fatal shooting of a Taiwanese crewman on board the Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 by the Philippine Coast Guard last week, it will not be able to explain away the purposeful nature of the shooting.

In 1995, when the Philippines began expelling Chinese fishing boats operating in its territorial waters in the South China Sea, its policy was to detain their crews. Later on, as the sheer number of Chinese fishing boats it had to contend with made this impracticable, it took to ramming the boats, a practice which resulted in the sinking of two ships and the deaths of several Chinese fishermen.

Last year, when the Philippines and China had a standoff over Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島), the Philippines reverted back to expulsion and detention. Over this extended process, a Philippine vessel opened fire on a Chinese boat on only two occasions, once in 1999 and then again in 2001, and there were no reported injuries in either case.

By contrast, the Philippine Coast Guard often opens fire on or detains Taiwanese fishermen operating in the waters around the Bashi Channel, irrespective of whether they have crossed the maritime boundary line, and in many cases fishermen have been injured. Clearly, the Philippines has a different policy on dealing with fishing boats operating in what it claims to be its maritime waters, depending on whether they come from China or Taiwan. This is a very serious matter.

There are two reasons for this rather barbaric treatment of Taiwanese fishermen at the hands of the Philippines. First, because the Philippine government feels that Taiwan is weak and will not retaliate. Second, because arresting Taiwanese fishermen can be very lucrative: In the past, Taiwanese fishermen have been willing to hand over huge fines to secure their release. Had the crew of the Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 been detained last week, they would likely have had to pay a fine. Instead, the Philippine ship opened fire to intimidate the crew, with tragic results. The Taiwanese government has to take all this into account and deliver a strong response to ensure that this type of incident does not happen again.

It has been reported that Philippine naval authorities have said that the vessel in question only opened fire on the Taiwanese fishing boat when it entered Philippine territorial waters and then attempted to ram the Philippine ship. Make of that what you will, but the important thing is that all of the Philippine announcements of the definitions of its archipelagic waters — issued in 1961, 1978 and 2009 — unilaterally extended 200 nautical miles (370km) from the outlying islands.

It must be understood that the Philippines has never officially declared the exclusive economic zones between it and Taiwan, or the continental shelf boundary line it has unilaterally designated. The submission the Philippines presented to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2009 referred only to the continental shelf boundary east of Luzon. The submission did not mention anything about the continental shelf boundary line to the north of the island. Therefore, the Philippine argument that the Taiwanese fishing boat had crossed into its territorial waters does not hold any weight. Manila should provide Taipei with the charts showing the official exclusive economic zone north of Luzon.

It is also worth noting that according to the Treaty of Paris signed in 1898 to end the Spanish-American War, Batanes islands do not actually belong to the Philippines, as the Spanish did not cede these islands to the US. For all these years, the waters around the Batanes archipelago and the Babuyan islands have been traditional Taiwanese fishing grounds, and according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Philippines, as an archipelagic state, must recognize traditional fishing rights of other states within their archipelagic waters when they are designating maritime boundaries.

There is no getting around the fact that there is going to be an overlap in the exclusive economic waters of the Philippines and Taiwan, and that the issue of Taiwanese fishing rights in their traditional fishing grounds around the Batanes archipelago and the Babuyan islands needs to be resolved through talks between the two countries.

However, since Taipei and Manila cut diplomatic ties, the Philippines has consistently used the fact that no diplomatic relations exist as an excuse to refuse to sit down to talks. If Manila insists on maintaining the exclusive economic waters that it has announced as its official protected fishing grounds, it stands to reason that Taipei can adopt a similar approach.

If Philippine President Benigno Aquino III insists on respecting the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and wants to refer South China Sea disputes for arbitration to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, he should take a leaf from Japan’s book, and open talks with Taiwan to settle maritime issues.

Should the Philippines fail to come up with a response to this unfortunate affair that demonstrates sufficient goodwill on its part, the Taiwanese government needs to consider whether it should refer this dispute over fishing rights, caused by overlapping maritime zones, to the international tribunal for arbitration.

Chen Hurng-yu is a professor at Tamkang University’s Graduate Institute of Asian Studies.

Translated by Paul Cooper