Following nearly three months of maneuvering and clarifications, the Philippine government has finally made a positive response regarding the case of the Taiwanese fishing boat Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28, which came under fire from a Philippine Coast Guard vessel on May 9, resulting in the death of crewman Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成). Philippine authorities have now admitted that coast guard personnel committed an error, and they have issued a formal apology to the victim’s family.
Can the two sides now open a new chapter in their relations? What lessons can Taiwan and the Philippines learn from this incident?
First, Taiwanese society has reached a common understanding that the sacredness of human life is a key concept of human rights. Although articles about human rights have not been written into the Constitution, and the Control Yuan’s Human Rights Protection Committee has not fulfilled its intended function, the Hung case has showed that today’s social movements include human rights among their demands and that these ideals are widely accepted.
Human rights clauses are clearly included in the Philippine Constitution. The Philippines has established a Commission on Human Rights, and it is a signatory to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. However, the Philippine government and society have clearly not implemented the regulations laid out in the various human rights clauses. That is why Philippine Coast Guard personnel could show such a blatant lack of regard for human life by shooting more than 100 bullets at an unarmed fishing boat, killing one of the people on board.
Second, what lies behind the Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 case is the problem of Taiwan and the Philippines having territorial or economic waters that have not been clearly delineated. The Philippines is a signatory of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), so it is duty-bound to abide by the convention. Taiwan is not a signatory of the UNCLOS, so it is not obligated to abide by the convention.
Taiwan is willing to negotiate with the Philippines to resolve the problem of the two sides’ overlapping waters in accordance with the regulations laid out in the UNCLOS. However, the Philippines has for many years been unwilling to negotiate because it has no diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Although the two sides signed an agreement on sea lane passage, combined with a memorandum on agriculture and fisheries cooperation in 1991, this accord was later annulled because it was found to conflict with Philippine law.
The Philippines ought to clearly understand that, according to the regulations laid out in the UNCLOS, an archipelagic sovereign state is obliged to designate sea lanes for vessels from any nation to pass through. It is also obliged to respect neighboring countries’ traditional fishing rights in those waters. So it was not really necessary for Taiwan to sign the 1991 agreement. Nevertheless, Taiwan was willing to sign an agreement on these issues to uphold friendly relations between the two countries.
For many years, Taiwanese fishing boats have not dared to approach the seas around the northern Philippines, and this has caused Taiwan to lose fishing rights in waters between the two countries for no good reason. Even the right of innocent passage has been difficult to maintain. The cause of these troubles is that Philippines Coast Guard vessels have taken action to forcibly expel Taiwanese fishing boats, even shooting at them and their crewmembers.
In 2009, the Philippines submitted a claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, seeking to delineate the outer limit of its continental shelf as including the area of the Benham Rise to the east of the Philippines’ biggest island, Luzon. However, it did not submit any claim with regard to the northern limit of its continental shelf, because it knew that its outer limit overlaps with Taiwan’s territory.
Most worthy of attention is the fact that the northern base point submitted by the Philippines in the Benham Rise region is at 19 degrees 51 minutes north — less than 20 degrees north, which is the northern limit of the Philippine archipelago as defined by the 1898 peace treaty between the US and Spain, known as the Treaty of Paris. Filipino policymakers are aware that an unresolved question exists concerning overlapping territory between Taiwan and the Philippines, so they left some room for future negotiations.
The third point to consider is why the Philippines, having clearly known for many years that the two countries have an unresolved problem of overlapping territorial claims, has not been in a hurry to find a solution. Taipei and Manila do not have diplomatic relations, but this is not the reason. Taiwan and the Philippines have signed plenty of agreements, including accords on the promotion and protection of investment, avoidance of double taxation, and scientific and technical cooperation.
It seems that some departments in the Philippines are not in favor of signing an agreement of this sort, because any such agreement would affect their interests. Their interest is in impounding Taiwanese fishing boats that get close to Philippine waters whenever they want and extort payments from their owners. Fisheries disputes between Taiwan and the Philippines have for a long time involved illegal under-the-table dealings, and even some Taiwanese have their fingers in the pie.
The Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 incident has put relations between Taiwan and the Philippines under a lot of stress, but it could also be an opportunity. Only by negotiating and drawing up an agreement delineating their presently overlapping waters, or at least taking temporary measures, can Taiwan and the Philippines prevent more such tragedies.
Chen Hurng-yu is a professor in the Graduate Institute of Asian Studies at Tamkang University.
Translated by Julian Clegg