The separate investigations by Taiwan and the Philippines into the killing of a crewmember on the Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 by Philippine Coast Guard personnel in early May are about to be completed, after which legal procedures will start.
The two countries have engaged in fishery talks, and some substantive progress has been made on reaching an accord. The efforts to resolve the incident seem to be moving in the right direction and there is a chance that the dispute will be solved.
Unfortunately, that does not mean that Taiwan’s maritime challenges will be solved.
The past months have been eventful for Taiwan as far as maritime issues are concerned.
In the East China Sea, the dispute between Taiwan, Japan and China over who has sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) continues to heat up, and although Taiwan has signed a fishery agreement with Japan, this will in practice do nothing to facilitate a solution to the Diaoyutais issue.
In the South China Sea, the conflict between China and the Philippines over the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) is intensifying, but Taiwan continues to restrict its involvement to diplomatic statements and refrains from taking concrete action.
The Kuang Ta Hsing incident highlighted the longstanding conflict over fishery rights between Taiwan and the Philippines.
These issues make it clear that the threats to Taiwan and its future survival as a nation are ocean-related.
It is therefore time to gain a deeper understanding of the ocean’s importance to Taiwan and assess its impact on the nation’s future development.
However, ocean affairs in Taiwan are still handled according to the traditional division of labor that splits the issues between a dozen fragmented agencies.
Using the Kuang Ta Hsing incident as an example, fishery issues are handled by the Fisheries Agency, law enforcement by the Coast Guard Administration (CGA) and talks and negotiations with other governments by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Not only does this lead to a situation where the agencies pull in different directions, most of these issues are also marginalized within each agency and rarely receive sufficient attention.
Given that Taiwan lacks an institution dedicated solely to handling maritime issues, it is discouraging to see how many government issues that involve important maritime rights and interests fall between the cracks and are passed back and forth between agencies.
About the only thing that the government can be proud of in this regard is its attempts to establish a council of ocean affairs.
Even if we ignore that the draft organic law for the council remains stuck in the legislature so the council’s establishment lies in the distant future, or the dispute over whether the integration of the CGA into the council — which is part of the civil service — is unconstitutional, many other problems concerning the impact of the council’s establishment on the initiation and integration of maritime affairs remain.
Simply put, establishing a council of ocean affairs would be different from the establishment of the Council for Economic Planning and Development or the Mainland Affairs Council, which have a final say when it comes to other government agencies and their involvement in matters concerning economic planning and development or cross-strait relations.
Then there are the practical issues of budget and personnel within the dozen or so agencies currently handling maritime affairs, which raises questions when it comes to the authority of a council of ocean affairs to coordinate maritime affairs involving other ministries, commissions and agencies.
In recent years, the importance of oceans and islands have begun to influence the maritime strategy arrangements of other countries.
To handle these issues more effectively, Taipei must establish an agency, perhaps in the form of a ministry of maritime affairs, dedicated to handling maritime affairs and then reorganize the government agencies over which the handling of these issues is spread to concentrate them in the hands of the new agency.
This is not only the most pressing issue at hand, it is also the only viable option.
As part of his election campaigns, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) talked about “a blue revolution and oceans revitalizing the nation” and advocated that the handling of maritime affairs be unified and placed under a single ministry.
Only by establishing such a ministry and concentrating maritime affairs under it can Taiwan protect its maritime rights and interests.
Kao Shih-ming is an assistant research fellow at the Institute of Marine Resources Management at National Taiwan Ocean University.
Translated by Perry Svensson