The recommended filing of homicide charges against the Coast Guard personnel involved in the fatal shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman in May may be unpopular with some Filipinos who insist that we must defend our defenders at all cost—an example of misguided nationalism that ignores our national interest in using international law to oppose Beijing’s territorial aggrandizement over our seas.
Before we start the flag-waving, we must remember that when it comes to the use of force against unarmed civilians, we ourselves have many unresolved complaints against our uniformed troops, and that these human rights apply equally to all persons, Filipino or alien, within our territory, including the maritime territory that we rightly claim as ours. It pulls the rug out from under our feet when we start choosing who are entitled to be protected from the use of excessive force and, even worse, when we claim territory for the riches that we covet but disavow human rights obligations that come with the territory. Seen in that light, the recommended filing of charges by Filipino investigators within the Philippine justice system is itself an assertion of our territorial jurisdiction.
The wheels of justice have begun to turn albeit ever so slowly. Our National Bureau of Investigation has downgraded the charges from murder to homicide. It is now the turn of the prosecutors at the Department of Justice to weigh the evidence, including the official video recording of the incident that reportedly has been doctored by the Coast Guard (in itself a separate offense contained in the NBI charges).
That there existed such a video recording was a pleasant surprise to Filipinos who had hitherto come across such things only in foreign crime shows on TV and who now see their own law enforcers equipped with modern monitoring technology. That is why, in addition to criminal proceedings to punish the guilty, the incident calls for a review of our protocol, the rules of engagement governing these incidents from the proverbial “shot across the bow” to the hot pursuit seen in the televised excerpts of the video recording.
This is not our first encounter with Taiwan over its fishermen who encroach on waters reserved by international law to our own fisherfolk—and it won’t be the last. But we must remember that more than 20 years ago, President Corazon Aquino’s administration actually negotiated a code of conduct with Taipei to avoid precisely these unfortunate encounters, but it was scuttled due to our One-China policy sealed in the 1975 joint communiqúe between Ferdinand Marcos and Chou En Lai.
In that document, Manila agreed that Beijing was “the sole legal government of China, [that] there is but one China and that Taiwan is an integral part of Chinese territory.” Significantly, lest Beijing forget, the two states also “agree[d] to respect each other’s territorial integrity,” reiterating bilaterally an obligation fundamentally contained in the UN Charter.
That is why it sounds hollow for Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “strongly condemn the Philippines’ ‘barbaric’ shooting of the Taiwanese fishing boat” and to demand that Manila “investigate the case immediately and handle the issue properly.” But the most sensible thing is for next-door neighbors like Taiwan and the Philippines to talk and agree. Is that what Beijing suggests?
All this posturing should remind us that, when it comes to our claim over the West Philippine Sea, our chief opponent is Beijing, not Taipei. The “principal contradiction,” a term that should be familiar to Beijing old-timers from the bad old days of left-wing dogmatism, is with Beijing’s territorial and military ambitions in Asia.
Moreover, a cornerstone of Philippine national interest also lies in the protection of the overseas Filipino worker. While the Taiwanese government has the duty to protect our OFWs in Taiwan from harassment and assault, it falls on the Philippine government to take steps to ensure the continued hiring of OFWs there. We cannot belittle the interests of our OFWs as if they were playthings in global battles.
The recent legal development in Manila has reopened the hiring prospects for Filipino workers, and augurs well for current and aspiring OFWs. It has also defused potential enmity with a neighbor with whom we share a common distrust of Beijing. The Philippines’ national interest lies in using international law to resist Beijing’s territorial encroachments and military provocations. To lose sight of that is un-nationalistic.