Asia's Next High Seas Drama
Image Credit: J. Michael Cole

Asia's Next High Seas Drama

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The 15-tonne Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 was docked at the Ta Fu fishing port on Siaoliouciou, off Pingtung County in Taiwan’s south. Forensic technicians were busy photographing the 55 bullet holes, some in thick parts on the port side, that had been discovered on the fishing vessel — evidence, preliminary analyses said, that a heavy-caliber machine gun was used.

Two days earlier, on May 9, the fishing boat had been fired upon by a Philippine government vessel while operating some 164 nautical miles southeast of Taiwan’s southernmost tip. The unarmed crew took cover in the cabin, but for Hung Shih-cheng, a 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman, it was too late. He was killed when a bullet penetrated the right side of his neck.

The accounts differ. Philippine authorities claim that the fishing boat was intercepted approximately 43 nautical miles east of Balintang Island in the Balintang channel, and was therefore operating illegally in their country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). They also contend that the Kuang Ta Hsing provoked the shooting by trying to ram the Filipino Maritime Control Surveillance 3001, an “aggressive act” that forced its crew to take defensive action.

Philippine coastguard spokesman, Commander Armand Balilo, said the coast guard fired at the machinery to disable the Kuang Ta Hsing and was unaware that a crewmember had been hit.

For its part, Taiwan countered that the incident occurred in the countries’ overlapping exclusive economic zones. Hung Yu-chih, skipper of the Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 and son of the deceased, denies any attempt was made to ram the much larger coast guard vessel.

Taiwan and the Philippines, which have no official diplomatic ties and have overlapping claims over a series of islands in the South China Sea, have yet to ink a fisheries agreement such as the one that was signed last month between Taipei and Tokyo to regulate areas near the disputed Diaoyutai/Senkaku islets in the East China Sea.

The incident has sparked outrage in Taiwan, which argues that the excessive force used by the Philippine coast guard against unarmed fishermen was unacceptable. A handful of legislators from the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) have called the shooting an “act of war” rather than an accident, though such views are in the minority. Compounding the anger are memories of a similar incident on January 15, 2006, in which another Taiwanese fisherman was killed when a Philippine government vessel opened fire. Nobody was ever held accountable for the death.

Although there have been few public displays of anger in Taiwan over the matter, a small group of Taipei City councilors from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), accompanied by pro-independence organizations, protested outside the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO), the Philippines’s de-facto embassy in Taiwan, and threw shoes at the building, on Monday. Hundreds of members from an estimated 30 fishermen’s associations also held a peaceful protest in front of MECO later in the day, throwing eggs and burning the Philippine flag. A few passers-by shouted that Philippine workers should be expelled.

Taipei’ response has been firm, with the Ma Ying-jeou administration demanding a full investigation, an official apology from Manila, compensation for the family of the victim, and the start of negotiations over a fishery agreement as soon as possible. On May 11, Taipei issued a 72-hour ultimatum and said that if these demands were not met by midnight on May 14, Taiwan would retaliate by suspending the processing of applications by Philippine workers (there are about 87,000 of them in Taiwan), recall its representative to Manila, and expel the Philippines’ envoy. The U.S. government, which has refused to take sides in the matter, was apprised of the ultimatum before it was issued.

Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration also announced that it would hold off on an amendment to an aviation pact between Taiwan and the Philippines.

At the time of this writing, Manila’s official response has not satisfied Taipei, which has called it “unacceptable” and “frivolous.” Antonio Basilio, the Philippines’ representative in Taiwan, departed for the Philippines early on May 13 for emergency consultations in Manila. According to Taiwan’s foreign ministry, Manila was evaluating how to respond and was expected to issue an official response by Tuesday’s deadline. Taiwanese investigators, meanwhile, will depart for the Philippines later this week to initiate a joint investigation.

As the war of words intensifies, both sides have launched cyber-attacks, though it’s unlikely they were orchestrated by government agencies. Taiwan’s Presidential Office confirmed that its web site had been hacked on Sunday, and that the attacks had been traced back to the Philippines. Other government web sites, including the Ministry of National Defense, the Coast Guard Administration, and the Ministry of Economic Affairs, were also targeted, it said.

Meanwhile, several Philippine government web sites reported they had been the targets of denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks from computers in Taiwan.

In a sign of escalation, Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration (CGA) has reinforced patrols in the area where the incident occurred with two ships, in addition to the two already there, and is considering extending its operations in the South China Sea by 100 nautical miles. Legislators have also requested that the CGA’s recently commissioned Hsinbei, a 2,000-tonne patrol ship equipped with a 40mm antiaircraft cannon, be dispatched to the South China Sea to hold exercises should Manila fail to meet Taipei’s demands.

Meanwhile, the Navy dispatched one Lafayette-class frigate to the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines on Sunday to ensure the safety of Taiwanese fishermen. Furthermore, the Ministry of National Defense announced on Monday that one Chengkung-class frigate and one Kidd-class destroyer would also head for the area this week to participate in a joint exercise with the CGA near the location of last week’s shooting.

There is no indication that the Philippine coast guard and Navy intend to respond in kind.

The Legislative Yuan also adopted a resolution on Monday calling on the CGA to intercept and board any Philippine fishing vessel entering Taiwan’s 200 nautical mile EEZ if Manila fails to meet the 72-hour deadline.

China, which claims the entire South China Sea and has its own sovereignty disputes with the Philippines, also weighed in on the incident, calling it “barbaric” and requesting an investigation.

Ironically, the risk of Chinese involvement in the dispute — Beijing never misses a chance to “side” with Taiwan, which it regards as one of its provinces, in regional disputes — will force Taipei to strike a careful balance between showing firmness with Manila and avoiding escalatory action that could compel China to take action. Already, Taiwan’s foreign ministry has stated that it will not cooperate with China in the dispute, a decision that Beijing will again wrongly attribute to the government’s fear of angering the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), although opposition to such cooperation spans Taiwan’s political spectrum.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino called for calm on Monday, but refused to comment further on the crisis, saying that comments at the presidential level risked escalating tensions.

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