Features | Politics | Security | East Asia

Actually, It Was the Philippines That Bungled the Crisis with Taiwan

Responding to a recent piece in The Diplomat, Dennis Halpin argues that the missteps were Manila’s.

By Dennis Halpin for
Actually, It Was the Philippines That Bungled the Crisis with Taiwan
Credit: Wikicommons

In his article “How Taiwan Bungled the Philippine Crisis” on May 21, J. Michael Cole indicated that Taipei missed a golden opportunity to de-escalate the situation. That was when Philippine President Aquino dispatched MECO Chairman Amadeo Perez to Taipei to convey his “deep regret and apology over the unfortunate and unintended loss of life.”

The fact is that the personal apology conveyed by Mr. Perez for the Philippine Coast Guard’s “unintended” killing of a Taiwan fisherman is certainly not enough of an assurance for Taipei to begin healing its wounds. It is, instead, another attempt by Manila to evade the Philippine government’s responsibility in this tragedy.

Nuance is critical in diplomacy. Unfortunately, from day one, Manila has misused its diplomatic language in an attempt to reassure Taipei and, as a consequence, has bumbled into an avoidable row. “The propitious time to cease escalation,” as described by Mr. Cole, quickly passed by in the first few days. Manila missed a golden opportunity to seize the initiative and defuse the situation.

On May 10, one day after the Taiwan fisherman’s body was taken back to Taiwan and the public's outrage began to boil over, President Aquino’s Deputy Spokesperson Abigail Valte defended the Philippine Coast Guard against the alleged “aggressive act” of the Taiwan fishing boat GDX 28. “It was an aggressive act. The ramming of the boat into our vessel was certainly an aggressive act, so the PCG responded accordingly,” she said. Obviously Manila was trying to paint the PCG's killing as an act of self-defense against an aggressor

That approach was badly received by the Taiwan public. If Manila is really serious about conducting a transparent and impartial investigation of the killing, as previously promised, how could the Philippine government prejudge the Taiwan fishing boat as the aggressor and certify its “ramming” into the PCG, given that Manila's investigation was not yet even completed? At this stage, Taiwan has a legitimate concern over Manila’s attitude regarding the investigation of its own officials. 

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After all, this situation is not too complicated for the public to understand. The claim that the attack was necessary to prevent a ramming of the Philippine’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessel by the Taiwan fishing boat appears ludicrous given the disparity in size and weight between the two ships. The Philippine government vessel was roughly six times the size of the Taiwanese fishing boat. In addition, according to Taiwan's initial investigation, there is no evidence of any ramming found at the fishing boat to support Manila's claim of self-defense.

In addition, fifty-nine bullet holes from Philippine officials’ automatic weapons fire were found to have punctured the fishing boat’s cockpit, where the crew of father and son were hiding. This clearly demonstrates that Philippine Coast Guard personnel showed no restraint whatsoever in their sustained shooting barrage into an unarmed vessel. The excessive use of force by the Philippine Coast Guard is a serious violation of international law. Mr. Cole, in his article, also agreed at least that it was a disproportionate response by the Philippine authorities. 

Manila’s "finger-pointing" rhetoric greatly raised Taipei’s concerns and was viewed by Taipei as a counterproductive attempt to preclude the Philippine government’s responsibility to hold the perpetrators accountable. In the meantime, Beijing jumped in to strongly condemn Manila’s misconduct as “barbaric,” which also escalated the media's sensationalistic coverage of this tragedy in Taiwan. 

The death of any country’s citizen overseas under disturbing, non transparent circumstances naturally draws the deep interest and concern of that nation’s people. An example of popular outcry over the killing of a citizen overseas involved the disappearance of American high school student Natalee Holloway under highly suspicious circumstances on the Caribbean Dutch Island of Aruba in the spring of 2005. Her case became a media sensation in the United States. The Dutch and Aruban authorities, seeing the high level of interest of the American people in the case and the potential adverse effects on bilateral relations, including tourism, quickly agreed to bring the FBI and other American official partners into the investigation.

According to some Philippine news reports, the FBI in fact has even undertaken many joint investigations with the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation and its National Police not only in incidents involving Americans killed in the country, but also in other cases, such as the alleged hacking by Filipino Muslim terrorists of a US telecom firm's website. 

Given the experience of other past criminal investigations, including that into the disappearance of U.S. citizen Natalee Holloway, the failure to gather and provide evidence, including that of a forensic nature, as soon as possible, greatly impedes a successful investigative outcome. Taiwan was asking for no more than this.

On May 11 the public outcry in Taiwan was already high. Understandably, Taipei was very concerned with Manila’s evasive attitude in handling this crisis. As the aggrieved party, Taipei urged Manila on May 11 to agree within seventy-two hours to conduct a joint investigation, in addition to asking for a formal apology. Taipei also requested Manila to start negotiations of a bilateral fishery agreement to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again in the future.

During this seventy-two hour period from May 11 to May 14, there was only silence between Taipei and Manila. If, at this critical moment Manila had taken immediate, consistent and concrete steps to build mutual trust with Taipei, the standoff would have been largely resolved. Taipei needed to be reassured but, regrettably, Manila kept sending the wrong signals. 

First, the Philippine Representative to Taiwan Antonio Basilio was not fully authorized by Manila to negotiate with his Taiwan counterparts. Basilio’s proposals were repeatedly overturned by his home office, as demonstrated in his four response letter drafts to his Taiwan counterparts. These responses deteriorated from his first version of offering a formal governmental apology down to his final offer of the Filipino people’s nonofficial apology. As time passed, Basilio’s credibility was also dramatically eroding. Manila’s flip-flopping enhanced Taipei’s perception that the Philippines lacked the political will to settle this dispute expeditiously. 

By the morning of May 15 both sides had exhausted their energy but the impasse remained. Taiwan Foreign Minister David Lin was severely criticized by the Taiwan public for being overly accommodating to the Philippines. After realizing all its requests would be put on hold, Taiwan announced its first stage of sanctions against the Philippines, effective on May 15 as previously scheduled. Unexpectedly the bigger shock came from Manila right away.

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Right after Taipei’s announcement of its first stage of sanctions on May 15, President Aquino’s Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda announced that President Aquino had appointed MECO Chairman Amadeo Perez to be “his personal representative who will convey his and the Filipino people’s deep regret and apology to the family of Mr. Hung Shi-chen as well as to the people of Taiwan over the unfortunate and unintended loss of life.” As soon as the words “unintended loss of life” were uttered by Lacierda, his obviously insensitive response to the victim’s family immediately alienated the Taiwanese people. Manila’s previous goodwill gesture was totally overshadowed by its questionable attitude of defining the killing as an “unintended loss of life.”

Unfortunately the Aquino administration seemed careless regarding the nuances of its diplomatic message. Manila kept insisting that its “one China policy” places restraint on its offering of an official governmental apology. The personal apology with the unwelcome mention of “unintended loss of life,” delivered by Perez in Taipei, in fact just added salt to Taipei’s wounds. Manila’s self-descriptive “one China policy” should not be used as an impediment to block Perez from simply stating an apology “on behalf of the Philippine government.”

Manila’s repeated contention that the death of Taiwan fisherman Hong Shi-cheng represents “unintended loss of life” contradicts Philippine official claims that an ongoing investigation of the incident is being conducted. The fact that Manila has put forward the conclusion on unintended loss of life before the investigation is completed raises Taipei’s legitimate concerns about the transparency and credibility of the entire Philippines-based investigation progress. Manila’s self-defense approach is to put the cart before the horse and is viewed by Taipei as one more counterproductive attempt to preclude the Philippine government’s responsibility under international law. Another misstep by the Aquino government was made later by Philippine Justice Secretary Leila De Lima, when she refused to conduct a joint investigation with Taiwan and not even to meet with the Taiwanese investigators in Manila. 

If the golden opportunity to de-escalate this row between Taipei and Manila really came at the time when Manila sent Perez to Taiwan on May 15, as Mr. Cole indicated, then Manila’s above self-contradictory messages and its evasive and non-credible manner have seriously damaged its own ability to achieve the goal it desired. Accepting Perez’s conditional and half-hearted apology would violate Taipei’s public pledge to get to the bottom of the case, which the victims and their family members involved in this tragedy deserve. With very limited options, Taipei announced the second stage of sanctions against the Philippines at the end of May 15. 

As Mr. Cole mentioned, this Taiwan-Philippine dispute can be “a case study in how initially skillful diplomacy can quickly be undermined by missed opportunities.” However, it takes two to tango. Only by working constructively together can Taipei and Manila heal the still open wounds of this tragic incident and begin the restoration of a tranquil and positive bilateral relationship.

Fishing is one of the key conflict drivers in the South China Sea and fishing disputes in the area are on the rise. Several events in recent years highlight the significant role that fishermen and fishing activities play in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The long-term solution remains, of course, the negotiation of a bilateral Taiwan-Philippines fishery agreement, as Taiwan proposed, along the lines of that signed between Taipei and Tokyo this April. It effectively facilitates a rules-based mechanism to manage potential conflict. Resolution and final closure of this avoidable and heartbreaking tragedy requires a two-way street of communication and mutual cooperation.

Dennis Halpin was a House Foreign Affairs Committee senior committee staff member advising on Asian issues for over twelve years. Before that Mr. Halpin was a foreign service officer posted overseas in Taipei, Beijing and South Korea (Seoul and Pusan).