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.