President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has taken a tough stance following the attack by a Philippine Coast Guard vessel on a Taiwanese fishing boat on Thursday last week, which resulted in the death of fisherman Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成). Ma demanded that the Philippine government make a public apology and pay compensation to the fisherman’s family. He threatened sanctions against the Philippines, and proceeded to impose them.
Ma’s response in this case has been appropriate, but a more crucial aspect to consider is that this incident should be taken as a signal to reflect on Taiwan’s diplomatic policies and actions with regard to its neighboring countries.
This is by no means the first time that Taiwan has been badly treated by one of its Asian neighbors. The Philippines alone has offended Taiwan many times. According to figures published in the media, there have been at least 30 occurrences over the past decade of Taiwanese fishing boats being attacked with malicious intent by Philippine government vessels.
Another example of offensive behavior happened in February 2011, when 14 Taiwanese accused of committing fraud in the Philippines were arrested and deported to China, not to Taiwan. The Philippine government went so far as to politicize the issue by saying that it had taken this action in accordance with its “one China” policy. This set a precedent for denying Taiwan’s sovereignty, and it has had further repercussions since then. However, public memories of the incident have faded over time, and Taiwan still lacks a clear orientation as to how it should respond to the Philippines’ habitually churlish behavior.
Everyone is aware of the difficulty Taiwan faces because of its diplomatic isolation. Even though this predicament cannot be blamed entirely on Ma and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a more pressing question is whether Ma’s administrative team, in the face of this difficult situation, has ever thought about what kind of concrete diplomatic strategy it has in relation to Asia, which is after all the region in which Taiwan exists and that has the greatest influence upon it.
US historian Archibald Coolidge, an authority in the field of international relations, once said that the study of international relations must start from an understanding of neighboring countries. However, Taiwan often behaves as if it were a great power, looking down on the “little” countries around it in Asia. Even India is a small country in Taiwan’s eyes.
However, while Taiwan says that it wants to be friendly with the US and Japan, and maintain peaceful relations with China, it moans about how hard it is to be a small country stuck between these three big partners. Setting aside the question of whether such a policy outlook is contradictory, it no doubt highlights the scant attention that Taiwan pays to the other countries around it, while confining itself diplomatically to the space between the aforementioned three big powers.
The current dispute with the Philippines is no more than the tip of the iceberg. Behind it lie the limitations that arise from Taiwan’s adherence to such a narrow perspective in its foreign relations.
Taiwan should pay more attention to the countries around it and gain a better understanding of them, and it should employ a variety of means, such as culture, education and so on, to develop its relations with them. Only if it does so will Taiwan have any hope of increasing its room for maneuver on the world stage.
Chang Chi-shin is a post-doctoral research fellow in National Tsing Hua University’s Institute of Law for Science and Technology.
Translated by Julian Clegg