Although the Philippines admitted to shooting at the Taiwanese fishing boat Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 on Thursday last week, its attitude toward the whole affair has bordered on arrogance, often acting as if it were a superior nation. Manila simply expressed its regret over what happened and failed to extend an apology until Wednesday. A deputy spokesperson for the Philippine presidential office even claimed that the Philippine vessel fired at the fishing boat following provocation, hinting that the fishermen had initiated the incident. If Taiwanese tolerate this, what else will they have to tolerate?
Take for example the dispute between the UK and Denmark over the British trawler Red Crusader in 1962. A report on the incident by a neutral commission of inquiry based in The Hague said that although government vessels of coastal states were not prohibited from using force against escaping “illegal” fishing boats, such force must not be excessive or endanger the lives of crewmembers.
In 1999, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea reaffirmed this viewpoint in the Saiga case that occurred off the coast of Guinea, stating that the use of force is to be avoided as far as possible in the enforcement of maritime law, and that if the use of force is unavoidable, it must be legitimate and necessary. Thus, force may only be used when other methods prove ineffective and it must not put human life at risk. In these two cases, the countries who were found to be at fault had to fulfill their international responsibilities, apologize and pay compensation.
The Philippines argues that its vessel fired at the Taiwanese fishing boat because it tried to ram it. Even if that were true, shots should only have been fired to warn the fishing boat or to stop it from escaping. However, as the Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 sailed for Taiwan, the Philippine vessel chased it for one hour, repeatedly strafing it with machine gun fire. Fifty-two bullet holes were found in the boat, showing that the Philippine Coast Guard personnel fired recklessly, disregarding the lives of the crew. If the Philippine vessel was enforcing the law, it should have brought the Taiwanese fishing boat back for questioning after it lost power. Instead, it left the area, disregarding the safety of the crewmembers. That is not law enforcement; that is slaughter and an absolutely unnecessary, violent and cold-blooded action.
Any diplomatic dispute over the incident should be handled calmly and the Taiwanese government should try to seek a solution through diplomatic means. However, in the meantime Taiwanese fishermen have no choice but to continue fishing in these waters, especially as the bluefin tuna season runs until the end of July. The government has decided to dispatch several vessels to protect Taiwan’s fishermen in the disputed waters. Not only did the Coast Guard Administration (CGA) dispatch three vessels, the navy also dispatched a Kangting-class frigate to the area.
On May 12, after a coast guard press conference where it restated its commitment to safeguarding Taiwanese sovereignty and protecting the nation’s fishing rights, it opened its Tainan vessel — equipped with 20 large-caliber guns — to the media in Greater Kaohsiung.
CGA officials said that if the Philippine vessel that fired at the Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 is spotted within Taiwan’s exclusive economic zone, they would bring it back to Taiwan in accordance with the law.
According to Article 7 of the Act of Use of Weapons and Requisite Instruments by the Coast Guard Authority (海岸巡防機關器械使用條例): “Any personnel of the Coast Guard in the course of performing duties may use a firearm or dagger when the life, body, freedom and/or property of any innocent people is endangered or threatened, or in the presence of any fact that is sufficient for the personnel of the Coast Guard to believe that any innocent people [are] subject to such danger or threaten[ed].”
Article 8 also states: “If the use of [a] dagger or firearm fails to stop the crime, any personnel of the Coast Guard in the course of performing duties may use guns as may be required in the opinion of the highest-ranking official of the Coast Guard authority that no other alternative is available.”
However, incidents usually happen suddenly, and Philippine vessels have repeatedly and recklessly employed lethal force against fishing boats. The government should immediately authorize law enforcement in the area and employ all necessary means — including the use of force — against Philippine government vessels that attack Taiwanese fishing boats within the overlapping exclusive economic zones. How can Taiwanese tolerate the Philippines killing Taiwanese fishermen in its own waters?
The Taiwanese government should relax restrictions on the use of force at sea and empower law enforcement agencies in accordance with the law. Halfway measures will not solve the problem. In the face of danger, law enforcement agencies should be freed from unnecessary restrictions so that they can protect the lives and property of Taiwanese fishermen and safeguard the nation’s maritime rights.
Chiang Huang-chih is a professor of law at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Eddy Chang