After the outburst of public anger, amplified by official outrage orchestrated by an unpopular government, Taiwan is sounding less bellicose these days. Perhaps President Ma Ying-Jeou and his advisers think they have forced the Philippines into a corner. They would be wrong.
After the shooting death of Taiwanese fisherman Hung Shih-chen on May 9, in Philippine waters, it was incumbent on the Philippines to show that the rules were followed in that unfortunate encounter—and if not, to bring justice to the victim and to hale the offending crewmen to court. There was no reason for Taipei to expect otherwise; despite several dozen such encounters in the past, where Philippine Coast Guard vessels intercepted Taiwanese fishing boats suspected of poaching on the country’s exclusive economic zone, relations between Manila and Taipei were always robust.
The fraying of these ties was a direct result of Taiwan’s deliberate decision to strike a populist, even jingoistic, pose after the incident. The initial unreasonable demands, coupled with the hostile official actions such as labor bans and aggressive naval exercises just off Luzon, were not aimed at changing the conduct of the Philippine government—no self-respecting sovereign country would want its head of state to apologize using a noncountry’s preferred script—but rather at channeling the anger of the Taiwanese public.
Now the investigation has been concluded. The findings of the official Philippine inquiry into the shooting incident, undertaken as part of a cooperative effort with Taipei, have not yet been disclosed, but Justice Secretary Leila de Lima confirmed early reports that the National Bureau of Investigation had recommended the filing of criminal charges against the Coast Guard crew involved.
No one is yet in a position to review the NBI’s findings, but we cannot believe that the bureau, with the active help of the Department of Justice, would manufacture a result simply to please Taiwan. In other words, the results would have been the same, and the investigators would have still done their job, even if the Taiwanese did not irresponsibly put the lives of some Filipino workers in Taiwan at risk, or brandish their arms at a close ally.
The Philippines’ de facto ambassador to Taiwan described the NBI findings as “the last piece” in the puzzle to mend relations. But we think Taipei has also learned that no self-respecting country would allow itself to be stampeded into action—and that cooperating with neighboring countries is the best way to advance mutual interests.
It is no coincidence that Taiwan has been trying to promote what it calls its East China Sea Peace Initiative—essentially an attempt, to quote Prof. Madoka Fukuda of Hosei University, to call on China and Japan “to shelve sovereignty issues, peacefully resolve their disputes and engage in joint development of resources.” To this end, the Taiwanese finally concluded a lengthy negotiation with the Japanese on a fisheries agreement last April. (The agreement is formulated as a contract between two private-sector entities, to comply with the One China policy that Japan and most other countries, including the Philippines, follow.)
The mending of relations between the Philippines and Taiwan is to be sealed through another fisheries agreement, with talks beginning in July. This has nothing to do with the Taiwanese peace initiative, and yet at the same time it will enhance the Taiwanese position. A successful fisheries agreement with the Philippines, to its south, will allow Taipei to focus on the east—on Japan and especially China.
But the Philippines also stands to gain from a fisheries agreement smartly, resolutely, negotiated. There is the clarity to be gained from forthright protocols regarding encounters in those areas where the exclusive economic zones overlap. And there is also the advantage to be gained from stronger relations with a more flexible, less absolutist South China Sea claimant like Taiwan.
Then, as now, Taiwan is a counterweight to China.