How Taiwan Bungled the Philippine Crisis
Image Credit: flickr/ jamesonwu

How Taiwan Bungled the Philippine Crisis

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The art of diplomacy involves not only the ability to maximize the returns for one’s country but also a keen awareness of the most propitious time to cease escalation. The dispute between Taipei and Manila over the killing of a Taiwanese fisherman by a Filipino coast guard vessel is a case study in how initially skilful diplomacy can quickly be undermined by missed opportunities.

During the first days of the crisis, Taiwan indisputably had the moral high ground. Hung Shih-cheng, a 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman, had been killed when a Philippine coast guard sprayed the Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 with machine gun in disputed waters between the two countries. As a joint investigation had yet to materialize, it still wasn’t clear whether the ship had ventured into the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Regardless, the 45 bullet holes discovered on the hull of the Kuang Ta Hsing pointed to a disproportionate response by the Philippine authorities.

Facing domestic pressure over what the Taiwanese public rightly saw as a grave injustice, the Ma Ying-jeou administration requested a full apology from the Philippine government, financial compensation for Hung’s family, as well as a joint investigation. President Ma issued a 72-hour ultimatum on May 11 and threatened various sanctions against the Philippines — including freezing work applications for Philippine workers — if the demands were not met by midnight on May 14.

After much to-ing and fro-ing, Manila seemed willing to respond to the demands, but added that it would do so under its “one China” policy (the Philippines and Taiwan do not have official diplomatic relations). This meant that the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO), Manila’s de-facto embassy in Taiwan, would handle the matter instead of Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s cabinet.

It was evident that Manila’s adherence to the “one China” policy would be an impediment to resolving the crisis, and as expected, Taipei rejected the offer, saying that the apology had to occur at the government level. In order to appease various domestic constituencies — including some outspoken members of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party — that were calling for a more muscular response to the incident, Ma ordered naval exercises near the waters where the Kuang Ta Hsing had come under fire. The high-profile exercise, which involved frigates, destroyers and combat aircraft, along with coast guard ships, took place on May 16.

Up until then, the Ma administration had handled the crisis relatively well. It had successfully balanced appeals from hardline elements with the need to remain firm with a somewhat standoffish Manila. But then it lost its footing. Its diplomats missed a golden opportunity to de-escalate when Aquino dispatched MECO Chairman Amadeo Perez to Taipei to convey his “deep regret and apology over the unfortunate and unintended loss of life.” Authorized by Aquino, the apology was extended “to the people of Taiwan.”

Afraid of angering Beijing by breaking its commitment to a “one China” policy, this was as far as Manila could probably go — something that Taipei knew full well. By accepting this apology, however “unofficial” it may have been, the Ma administration would have shown magnanimity while making it possible for both sides to bow out gracefully.

But it didn’t do that. Instead, top Taiwanese officials refused to meet Perez, while Premier Jiang Yi-huah said that Manila had not shown “sufficient sincerity.” Soon afterwards, Perez and Antonio Basilio, the Philippines’ representative to Taiwan, were sent packing, and Taipei implemented sanctions that, in the end, will only hurt innocent Philippine workers in Taiwan. In the process, Taipei lost the moral high ground and much of the goodwill it had accumulated from the international community. Taiwan was no longer the victim; the weaker player in the dispute, the Philippines, was now the injured party.

What happened? How did Ma’s diplomats lose control of the situation? The principal reason is that Taipei allowed itself to be carried away by the domestic indignation over the slaying of an unarmed Taiwanese (we should furthermore note that a similar incident in 2006 remains unresolved). Given Ma’s low popularity ratings, he would understandably seek to ride the wave of nationalism that, almost spontaneously, had taken over the whole of Taiwan.

However, we shouldn’t read too much into Taipei’s mishandling of the crisis in its later stages. Its intransigence is unlikely the product, as some commentators have suggested, of “Han chauvinism.” It is instead the result of something much more granular, such as local legislators’ political ambitions in fishermen’s constituencies, as well as by opposition parties’ efforts to criticize Ma no matter what he does, especially at a time when he is vulnerable.

It also isn’t the result of a conspiracy to cooperate with China, even though both claim the South China Sea in its entirety (Taiwan is bound by the Republic of China constitution, in which such claims are enshrined). There is practically no tangible support in Taiwan for joint efforts with China on sovereignty disputes, or for an aggressive regional policy such as that adopted by Beijing. After all, some of the most hardline comments regarding the dispute with Manila came from within the pro-independence green camp, not within Ma’s “China-friendly” Kuomintang (KMT) administration.

Not everything the Taiwanese government does involves ulterior motives or conspiracies. Sometimes the reasons for its actions are much more mundane. A lack of worldliness, of understanding Taiwan’s position within the international community, and of how its actions will be interpreted abroad, better explain what happened. Depicting Taiwan’s actions as a plan by a secret cabal of “Han Chinese” chauvinists to take over the region simply doesn’t help us understand what ultimately went wrong with Taiwan’s handling of the situation.

Comments
209
sotr
August 27, 2013 at 16:35

The verdict's out. Issue closed, Philippines apologized, Taiwan ends sanction, Phillipine's investigators recommends homicide charges to 8 coast guard personnel.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/10/world/asia/taiwan-drops-sanctions-against-philippines-over-fishermans-killing.html?_r=0

Cheng
July 5, 2013 at 12:07

If I remembered correctly, Manila had the tape but would not publically showing it until like a month later. If the ship really did ram the vessale, then why didn't Manila show it right away?? Instead of saying now the tape is in Taipei's hand.

kito
June 15, 2013 at 22:12

I read one article, if there are more than 50+ bullet holes in Taiwanese boat. It means bullet entry and bullet exits. So we can say there are about 25 rounds fired from a automatic rifle? Now, there were about 4 Taiwanese fisherman in a 15 ton wooden boat. If it were a real massacre, all of them died. Again, the Taiwanese fishing boat tried to ram the coastguard. Although, the Taiwanese wooden fishing boat is only 25 tons compared to the.Philippine coastguard which is 90 tons of metal. But, the word “tried to ram” is very clear a threat to the Philippine coastguard. It is only fair that they defend themselves. If you are wondering why almost 25 rounds? Well, your fishermen tried to flee. And, the most important thing….they where chase for almost 1 hour, and they where still in the EEZ zone. Meaning that the alleged Taiwanese fishermen were deeper into Philippine territory.

Arthur Nolasco
June 14, 2013 at 19:53

Let’s say, just as an exampl

Dave
June 11, 2013 at 06:24

The backlash may affect the Philippines, but, an apology at the state level has far reaching implications for the Philippines. If Taiwan can make demands without regard for the sovereignity of the Philippines, Taiwan will not be so gracious or diplomatic in getting its way on many issues including a fisheries agreement or a territorial dispute. 

Dave
June 11, 2013 at 05:17

Maybe smaller economy or military.

Mutya
June 5, 2013 at 13:07

And all of us know that you want a fisheries agreement. If you want that to happen, you should just wait for the results of the investigation. You all just aggravate the situation. 

Mutya
June 5, 2013 at 13:03

Kyl, your government also adheres to One China Policy. And besides, there was already an apology (even more than one). I really cannot understand you people. If the result of the investigations will prove PCG men guilty, then justice will be served. If not, you should stop calling them "cold-blooded murderers." This is all trial by publicity. Anyone is innocent until proven guilty. You are all assuming and overreacting. 

KYL
June 5, 2013 at 03:50

Mutya, it is precisely because they were at high seas that the PCG should take even more care! Because it’s harder to aim properly, therefore you don’t open fire so easily and certainly don’t fire so many rounds!

You are right, TW is jumping to conclusions in the absence of investigation results. But over-usage of force is pretty clear from OBJECTIVE evidence and for that, PH gov’t needs to apologize – and that’s all it needs to do – it doesn’t need to apologize whilst slapping TW in the face with “One China Policy” and “unintended tragedy” simultaneously.

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