Escalation Pressure Builds Between Manila and Taipei

14 May

Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28What good is hegemonic authority when the United States won’t get pushy for law and order in the South China Sea?

The United States on Monday voiced regret over the death of a Taiwanese fisherman killed when the Philippine coast guard fired on his vessel, but stopped short of condemning the incident.

“We regret the tragic death of a Taiwan fishing boat master during a May 9 confrontation at sea with a Philippine patrol vessel,” State Department spokesman Jen Psaki told reporters.

“The United States has been in touch with both the Philippine government and the Taiwan authorities regarding this incident. And we welcome the Philippine government’s pledge to conduct a full and transparent investigation.”

Pressed by reporters to take a stronger stand, Ms Psaki said merely that Washington continued to urge all sides “to refrain from provocative actions.”

A Philippines coast guard vessel puts 55 holes in a Taiwanese fishing vessel, a man takes a bullet, and that’s all you got? Both Manila and Taipei are offering differing accounts of the incident.

The accounts differ. Philippine authorities claim that the fishing boat was intercepted approximately 43 nautical miles east of Balintang Island in the Balintang channel, and was therefore operating illegally in their country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). They also contend that the Kuang Ta Hsing provoked the shooting by trying to ram the Filipino Maritime Control Surveillance 3001, an “aggressive act” that forced its crew to take defensive action.

Philippine coastguard spokesman, Commander Armand Balilo, said the coast guard fired at the machinery to disable the Kuang Ta Hsing and was unaware that a crewmember had been hit.

For its part, Taiwan countered that the incident occurred in the countries’ overlapping exclusive economic zones. Hung Yu-chih, skipper of the Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28 and son of the deceased, denies any attempt was made to ram the much larger coast guard vessel.

Ben at Letters from Taiwan goes into more detail.

This timeline shows that the spat between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal has a long history. It could be then that the PCG personnel on board the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessel that confronted Hung’s boat were over zealous, keen not to be embarrassed again. This fatal incident, deriving from an almost annual showdown over access to valuable catch, might then be seen as an act of aggression displacement. Not being able to displace the Chinese from their waters, they may have projected that frustration onto Taiwanese boats instead. The difference in these incidents is that Scarborough Shoal is much closer to the Filipino mainland than the area in which the Hung shooting took place. There is therefore lots of room for interpretation of whether the BFAR vessel had any authority to act in the area.

As usual, with international incidents of this nature, there are multiple competing accounts of what happened and where. Largely absent in the Taiwanese media is the claim by the PCG that Hung’s boat was one of four that were accosted and which refused to leave. Also absent is their claim that Hung rammed his boat repeatedly into the BFAR vessel. It boggles the mind, given all the brinkmanship by fishermen, Coast Guard and pseudo-naval vessels in the South and East China Seas in the last three years, that someone was not recording events on camera for evidence in this incident. The Philippines certainly did not help their case when they initially denied being in the area and then admitted firing on the craft. That does not lend an air of credibility to their version of events but since there seems to be no video (or none made available to the media) the confrontation remains at the level of ‘he said, she said’.

In such an information vacuum, the media and politicians feed in a cannibalistic frenzy, devouring any related information considered news worthy. Thus we have seen the pathetic spectacle of various Mayors and politicians of all parties in Taiwan shamelessly exploiting the Hung family’s grief in order to make themselves look ‘tough on crimes, tough on the causes of crime’. In Eric Chu and Hau Long-bin’s case, both have arguable seized the opportunity to demonstrate how loyal and patriotic they are as a prelude to possible runs for the Presidency in 2016.

There are the same elements of bureaucracy, resource competition, confusion, legal limbo, politics, and brinkmanship found in incidents throughout the region between the Koreas, Japan, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam over islands and fishing zones. The issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty only adds spice to a volatile mix. Michael Turton adds a discussion of how Taiwanese poaching disrupts the Philippine economy.

And this is not helpful: “If somebody died, they deserve our sympathy but not an apology,” Balilo told reporters.

Meanwhile, the Taiwanese navy and coast guard are patrolling the same waters. Manila has also incurred DDoS attacks originating from Taiwan.

As the United States dithers, Beijing is backing Taiwan. At least China knows how to take a stand.

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