The death of Taiwanese fisherman Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成), after Philippine Coast Guard personnel shot 52 bullets into a Taiwanese fishing boat, has raised tensions between the two nations. Taiwanese authorities and media have accused the Philippine government of “insincerity” when it apologized, but spoke of “unintended loss of life.”
While the death of a fisherman is tragic, the subsequent sequence of events shows a rush to judgment before it is clear what really happened.
Were warning shots fired? Was the fishing boat on a collision course with the Philippine vessel? Were there other ships in the area that witnessed the events? These questions need to be answered if we want to reach a fair and objective conclusion.
The location of the incident is also important. News reports say it occurred about 164 nautical miles (304km) southeast of Oluanpi (鵝鑾鼻), but this is only 80km east of the Philippino island of Balintang. Technically this would put the incident within Taiwan’s 200 nautical mile (370km) Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ), but it actually lies just outside Philippines’ territorial waters.
To make the claim that these are “disputed waters” is not responsible leadership. Would Taiwan accept Philippine fishing boats just outside its territorial waters off Taichung or Hualien? Not likely. Inflammatory language such as “cold-blooded murder,” as is being used on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Web site and by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), is also irresponsible.
When Ma first took office he promised Washington that he would be a reliable partner and there would be no “surprises.” He said he would be a “peacemaker” and not a “troublemaker.” This episode has certainly surprised many in Washington, and shows that Ma lacks the leadership to be a true peacemaker. Observers were flabbergasted by the way Ma has handled this crisis.
The Philippine government initially offered to conduct a joint investigation, but this offer was rudely rejected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Philippines twice extended apologies through personal emissaries of President Benigno Aquino III, but these were dismissed as “insincere” by a haughty Ma administration obsessed with getting a “government-to-government” apology.
Ironically, the Philippine response is in line with the “one China” concept that the Ma government has been strenuously pushing. As long as Ma’s government clings to this “one China” fallacy, it will be difficult for other nations to deviate from it. This latest episode clearly shows that adherance to “one China” perpetuates Taiwan’s international isolation.
It was also rather premature for the Ma government to issue an ultimatum, trying to force the Philippines to offer an apology, pay compensation and start fisheries talks before it was clear what the sequence of events was.
How can this conflict be resolved? First, it is essential that a clear and objective account of what actually happened is established. The Philippines is taking a lead in that, but Taiwan can help by not jumping to conclusions or making inflammatory accusations.
Second, if it is established that the Philippine Coast Guard used force unnecessarily or without provocation, compensation would be in order. If the crew broke established rules of engagement, then of course disciplinary measures would be called for.
Third, Taiwan must avoid the impression that it is siding with China against the Philippines. The biggest threat in the region is China’s encroachment into waters and territories traditionally held by the Philippines and Japan. Taiwan will need all the help it can get from these neighbors if China makes a move in its direction. Estranging them is detrimental to Taiwan’s security and future.
Chen Mei-chin is a commentator in Washington.