Panic in the Philippines Over Taiwan Diplomatic Crisis

The Philippine Coast Guard must do some soul searching after the shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman.

If news reports correctly reflect public sentiment, it seems fair to deduce that worry and frustration are rising in the Philippines amid diplomatic tension with Taiwan, triggered by the tragic killing of a 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman by members of the Philippine Coast Guard on May 9 in Balintang Channel.

Angered by the incident, Taiwan has made four demands: a formal apology, compensation, punishment for the guilty officers, and fishing talks. Taiwan has since stopped issuing work visas to Filipinos and has conducted military exercises near Philippine waters.

To make matters worse, Filipinos, especially politicians, did not immediately recognize the political and subsequent economic blowback of the May 9 shooting as their attention was focused on the May 13 midterm elections.

Taiwan’s military drill did not bother many people, but the economic sanctions alarmed Filipinos eager to work or do business in Taiwan, which is the Philippines’ ninth biggest trading partner. There are 87,000 Filipinos working in Taiwan, mainly in the manufacturing sector. 

Accurate or not, news reports about Filipinos being harassed or harmed by angry Taiwanese has caused further anxiety, prompting some to ask if the government has a contingency plan or reintegration program for migrant workers who will be forced to return if the tension escalates. Further, Taiwanese tourists were reportedly leaving the Philippines in large numbers, hurting travel operators. The Taiwanese are among the top foreign visitors to the Philippines. 

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President Benigno Aquino III was quick to issue an apology on behalf of Filipinos, but this was rejected by the Taiwanese government as insincere. Taiwan failed to appreciate that Aquino extended the apology even before a formal probe of the incident began.

A delegation sent by the Taiwanese government to conduct an investigation in the Philippines released a report describing the May 9 shooting as an act of murder, further inflaming public opinion in Taiwan. Naturally, the Philippine government dismissed the conclusion and insisted that the investigation of the incident is not yet finished. 

Further complicating matters, the Philippines cannot accede to a joint investigation due to its adherence to the “One China” policy. It is hoped, nonetheless, that the recent announcement of a “cooperative probe” between the two countries could help to break the diplomatic impasse.

So far, the Philippine Coast Guard is sticking to its story that the shooting was an act of self-defense after the Taiwanese fishing boat allegedly tried to cause its patrol boat to crash. But if reports are true that the shots fired were excessive, Coast Guard officials must then adequately explain this course of action.

Without prejudging the probe, perhaps the officials involved in the tragic shooting hoped to erase public doubt about the Coast Guard’s readiness to assert the country’s sovereignty in its territorial waters. In recent months, the Coast Guard was criticized for failing to prevent a Chinese fishing boat and a U.S. naval ship from entering and damaging Tubbataha Reef, a protected marine habitat. Consequently, many Filipinos view the Coast Guard as ineffective at patrolling the country’s waters and keeping the nation safe from smugglers, traffickers, poachers, and illegal fishers.

Was the alleged excessive force used against the Taiwanese fishing boat a deliberate act meant to prove that the Coast Guard can ward off illegal intruders from entering Philippine waters?

Hopefully, the probe will lead to justice for the slain Taiwanese fisherman. Filipinos also hope that the nation’s damaged relations with Taiwan can soon be repaired so that economic cooperation can resume.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Coast Guard must ask itself why it has utterly failed to prevent intruders from entering its waters– or successfully arrest them—and further, why it has failed to protect the country's territorial integrity without igniting a diplomatic row.