Friday, May 10, 2013


In the wake of last Thursday’s deadly clash between a Philippine maritime enforcement vessel and Taiwanese fishermen and reports that a large Chinese fishing flotilla was steaming to the Spratly Islands, Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia Jr. reminded the world these were not ordinary territorial disputes because they had wider implications for international law and commerce.

“While some would like to characterize the issue as a purely territorial dispute,” the country’s envoy in Washington DC said, “the issue clearly has far reaching implications to the international community in terms of respect for the freedom of navigation and commerce, and the peaceful settlement of disputes.”

A Taiwanese fisherman, identified in reports as 65-year-old Hung Shih-cheng, was killed when a Philippine Bureau of Fisheries vessel, partly manned by Coast Guard (PCG) personnel, fired on his boat as it allegedly tried to ram them. The Philippine ship was trying to board the Taiwanese fishing boat on suspicion it was poaching in Philippine waters.

According to the Taiwanese government, the incident took place 180 nautical miles southeast of the southernmost tip of Taiwan, which placed the fishing boats closer to the Philippines than to Taiwan. Both countries claim the area as part of their exclusive economic zones.

PCG spokesman Armand Balilo stressed the Taiwanese boats had been in Philippine waters and they were just doing their job to stop illegal fishing.

The incident appeared to draw rare unanimity between Taipei and Beijing as they demanded an explanation and an apology. While the Philippine’s chief envoy in Taiwan reportedly apologized to the dead fisherman’s family, Commander Balilo said in Manila, “If somebody died, they deserve our sympathy but not an apology.”

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou was quoted saying, “We demand the Philippines investigate and clarify the truth, to apologize, apprehend the killer and compensate.” Foreign Minister David Lin added, “We urged the Philippine government to open a full investigation on this case and send their apology to Taiwan’s government.”

So far, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) response has been to announce the grounding the Philippine ship’s crew while the incident was being investigated. Reports from Taipei suggest that country’s Ministry of Justice may ask to prosecute Filipinos involved in the death of its fisherman under a bilateral legal assistance agreement signed with the Philippines last April.

This incident comes as the Philippines is keeping a wary eye on a large Chinese fishing flotilla headed towards the Spratly Islands. “We hope China would respect our sovereignty,” Amb. Cuisia told a forum on the South China Sea held this week by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

“We hope there would be no more provocative actions because these do not certainly contribute to the enhancement of relations,” he added.

All these are coming on the eve of midterm elections in the Philippines. Although world affairs have figured little in domestic politics, these incidents could quickly spiral out of control and force the 3-year-old Aquino administration into a corner just like the August 2010 Luneta hostage crisis where a botched rescue resulted in the death of 8 tourists from Hong Kong (President Aquino was forced to apologize after he was caught on TV smiling as he inspected the scene of the carnage).

The President has also been criticized for his handling of the Scarborough Shoal face-off with China last year. He agreed to withdraw Philippine ships from the shoal, a rich fishing ground about a hundred miles off the country’s main island of Luzon, in what was supposed to be a mutual de-escalation of an impasse that began when the Philippine Navy boarded Chinese fishing boats and caught them red-handed harvesting protected marine species. Not only did the Chinese stay, but they’ve allegedly blocked the area against Filipino fishermen. 

Last January, the Philippines brought China’s “9-dash line” claim for adjudication before the United Nations. “What it asks is for the Arbitral Tribunal to declare that China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea are contrary to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and are thus invalid,” Cuisia explained.

The sea dispute, which has been portrayed as a David-vs-Goliath struggle between China and her smaller, less powerful neighbors, has so far been skillfully managed by the Aquino administration.

It’s been used to stir nationalistic fervor at home while highlighting the strategic importance of the Philippines, especially here in the United States where the Obama administration is “pivoting” to the Asia Pacific region.

The treaty allies have agreed to expand US military presence and aid to the Philippines, including stretching north a string of “Coast Watch” radar stations originally built to guard against infiltration by Islamic extremists in Mindanao, to now possibly look at Chinese naval activity in the Spratlys. 

A 2nd Hamilton-class all-weather patrol ship – a sister ship of the one that stopped the Chinese fishing boats at Scarborough Shoal before she was ordered to retreat – is now sailing to the Philippines after extended refurbishing in North Carolina.

The territorial disputes, first with China and now with Taiwan, have helped mute opposition to the increased US military presence in the country. But they underscore the high stakes in playing one superpower against one that’s fast emerging. It requires great skill and anytime someone gets killed in this dangerous game, it just makes the venture that more volatile.

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