The ensuing Philippine-Taiwan row showed clearly how a single untoward incident could easily escalate into a situation that could spiral out of control.
It also highlighted the “diplomatic triangle” that encompasses the Philippines, Taiwan and China within the context of the Philippine’s “One China policy.” The policy binds the three in an intricate triangular relationship that seems like a touchy “ménage a trois” in the realm of diplomacy.
When the Philippines and China established diplomatic ties in 1975, Manila agreed to the “One China policy” that recognized Beijing as China’s sole legal government, with Taiwan viewed as a part of China.
As a consequence, Manila broke its formal ties with Taipei but maintained economic, trade and cultural ties on an unofficial basis through a non-governmental body known as the Manila Economic and Cultural Office.
This set-up worked fairly well for more than three decades as trade and economic ties flourished, with trade volume reaching $10.9 billion in 2012, and Taiwan enjoying a surplus of $9 billion. Taiwanese companies have also invested more than $2 billion in the Philippines.
Moreover, about 87,000 Filipinos are employed in Taiwan, mostly as workers in factories exporting electronic components and products, and they remit $600 million annually to their families.
Taiwan’s GDP of $474 billion, though dwarfed by China’s, is almost double the size of the Philippine economy: in terms of living standards, as measured by its per capita GDP of $20,328, Taiwan’s is much higher than China’s or the Philippines.’
But this set-up eventually turned into a diplomatic minefield as an economically prosperous and confident Taiwan sought a wider “international space” in pursuit of an improved international status. It wanted to break out of its international isolation and escape from the constraints of the “One China policy.”
In this context, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s demand for a “formal apology” from the Philippines for what he described as the “cold-blooded murder” of the Taiwanese fisherman smacked of a diplomatic trap. President Aquino and his advisers sought to avoid it by expressing the apology for the “unintended loss of life” of the Taiwanese fisherman “on behalf of the Filipino people”—and not the Philippine government.
It was a distinction that President Ma and other Taiwanese politicians could not miss, and so Taiwan rejected the apology as “insincere,” though its spokesman focused more on the non-admission of the intent to kill to explain the rejection.
Taiwan’s demand for fishery talks sounds reasonable enough since the May shooting was basically about who could legally fish in the waters between Taiwan and the Philippines. But again it will be a challenge for the Philippines as it seeks to protect its interests and maintain its balancing act between Taiwan and China in the process of sorting out the issue of fishing rights.
When Taiwan and Japan signed a landmark fishery agreement last April after 17 long years of negotiations, China objected and called on Japan to act in line with the “One China policy.” A similar reaction can be expected from Beijing if and when the Philippines and Taiwan work out a fishery pact. But an agreement is still doable as long as it is done on a non-governmental basis and does not directly challenge the “One China policy.”
But it can be a complicated process since it will involve the issue of overlapping exclusive economic zones (EEZ) between Taiwan, the Philippines and also China. Since China views Taiwan as its province, albeit one that is not under Beijing’s direct control, it will also consider Taiwan’s EEZ as part of China’s EEZ.
It’s worth noting that China and Taiwan share similar territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea represented by the 9-dash line. In fact, China’s official map show a total of 10 dashes, with the 9th line crossing the waters between Taiwan and the Philippines and the 10th line right beside Taiwan.
Since Taiwanese fishing fleets are much more technologically advanced than their Filipino counterparts, their quest for more catch impels them to sail farther away from home and closer to the waters off Batanes, which is bountiful in tuna. With the big demand for tuna among Taiwanese consumers, their fishermen can earn higher incomes from such catch.
Just 39 Miles
The May shooting incident happened 164 nautical miles from the southernmost tip of Taiwan, but just 39 miles from Batanes. The Taiwanese claim that their fishermen were operating in disputed waters where the EEZs overlap will not hold water under closer scrutiny since international law calls for observing an equitable median line in such overlapping areas. This incident certainly transpired way below the median line that applies in this case, and thus very much beyond what is permissible under the UN Law of the Sea.
But the tragic death of a Taiwanese fisherman certainly calls for a serious review by the Philippines of the rules of engagement employed by its maritime and naval units. The results of the probe into the shooting will show if there was excessive use of force and the responsibility of those involved.
Since the Philippines shares the same maritime space with China and Taiwan on its western and northern borders, similar incidents could happen whenever the annual fishing season is at hand. And it is almost inconceivable what the consequences would be if ever the victim is a fisherman from the Chinese mainland.
Indeed, firing a single bullet, whether intentionally or accidentally, can lead to a full-scale crisis, if not war, in the troubled waters surrounding the Philippines.
Chito Sta. Romana covered China for ABC News from 1989 to 2010 He is now based in Manila as an independent China analyst. A member of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS), he was part of a PACS delegation to China that recently held talks with scholars from leading Chinese research organizations.