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Key Economic Data 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2002)
Millions of US $  406,000    
GNI per capita
 US $ 18,000
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

Books on Taiwan

Update No: 107 - (26/05/13)

Fishing in troubled waters
Tensions have been running high in the South China Sea and adjacent waters over disputed territorial claims and competing fisheries disputes – chiefly involving Chinese boats. However, Taiwan makes the same territorial claims as China and in May an incident off the coast of the Philippines Batanese Province involving a Taiwanese fishing boat and a Philippines coast guard vessel left one Taiwanese fisherman dead. The circumstances remain unclear with differing accounts from both sides over the incident. In Manila’s eyes, the Taiwanese vessel was clearly acting provocatively. Taipei sees an over exuberant use of force by the Philippines vessel. However, Ma Ying-jeou’s determination to extract a government-to-government response may prolong the incident and result in a loss of face. Manila is not going to abandon its one-China policy over a fishing spat.

In a month that has been bereft of political intrigue, cross-straits stoushes and good economic data that would allow the government to pat itself on the back, the event that appears to have taken the lion’s share of public tension is a spat with the Philippines over the death of a Taiwanese fisherman, whose fishing vessel was caught within the exclusive economic zone claimed by the Philippines.

The incident took place of May 9 and has been front-page news in the local press every day since then. According to Taiwanese sources, the vessel, Kuang TaHsing No 28, was actually fishing in waters administered by the Pingtung County Government (a county in southern Taiwan) when it was intercepted by a Philippine naval vessel and fired upon. In the incident a 65-year-old crewmember was hit and later died. The vessel was 164 nautical miles south of Pingtung County at the time and in an area claimed both by Taiwan and the Philippines as part of their economic exclusion zone.

According to Filipino sources, their vessel was actually from the Coast Guard and took defensive action only when the fishing vessel attempted to ram it.

The entire issue of maritime boundaries in East Asia is fraught with tensions – between Taiwan and Japan over the Diaoyutai Islands (Senkaku in Japanese); between Taiwan and the Philippines over overlapping maritime claims in the vicinity of the Batanes Islands, which is an archipelagic province of the Philippines lying in the Luzon Strait between the Philippines and Taiwan; this island group is located about 160 km north of Luzon (the main island of the northern Philippines) and 190km south of Taiwan; and between Taiwan and China on the one hand and everybody else on the other over the South China Sea.
With tensions running high throughout the region and with the Taiwanese vessel clearly within the Batanes area of the Philippines it is little wonder that the Philippines chose to make a stand. Rather than confront China elsewhere on the high seas, a Taiwanese fishing boat was the hapless target of this show of muscle.

It was unfortunate and probably unnecessary but in looking at the statements issued to the press by both governments, it appears that there was fault on both sides. Despite Taiwan’s claim that the vessel was within its own claimed exclusion zone, it was also in an area that was clearly a province of the Philippines. As such it was a provocation and it is no wonder that the Philippines reacted. But was such a show of force really necessary? And was the Philippine Coast Guard vessel really in danger of being mown down by a fishing vessel? If you believe that then you can believe a Vespa scooter has the capacity to force a Range Rover off the road.

There are clear protocols in place under the Law of the Sea and other conventions that govern right of way on the high seas and at this stage it is not clear which vessel had right of way. No doubt this will come out in the enquiries that are being conducted by both governments.

Taiwan protested and the Philippines duly apologised. Coming days ahead of the mid-term elections in the Philippines, President Aquino expressed his regret over the incident and promised to cooperate in an investigation. President Ma however, chose to reject the apology claiming that it was ‘insincere’ and issued four demands of the Philippine Government: the issuance of an apology, provision of compensation to the family of the victim, the arrest of those responsible and agreement to bilateral fisheries talks. These demands came in the form of a 72-hour ultimatum, which passed without any further response from the Philippines.

The loss of life in any circumstances is tragic but both sides appear to be responding with one eye to their local constituencies. In Aquino’s case, the incident came days ahead of the election and the Philippine government had to act in a strong manner to defend its national interests, especially after the recent spats with China in the South China Sea.

In Ma’s case, it was an easy opportunity for him to show himself as the commander-in-chief. The danger is that by talking tough he may have lost control and may loose face. The Taiwanese media has whipped itself up into an anti-Filipino frenzy. The government of course, placed an immediate ban on the further hiring of Filipino workers – something its own business leaders counselled against; but the public has now gone further, banning Filipinos from Taiwanese restaurants and from staying at local hotels. The head of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO) in Taiwan – the Philippines de facto embassy – has warned Filipinos to stay indoors and to eat at home for the time being. Taiwanese tours to the Philippines have also been cancelled until further notice.

The problem has compounded by the fact that in its apology, the Philippines chose its words carefully ‘the people of the Philippines expressed deep regret and apologized for the unfortunate event’ in the words of MECO head Antonio Basilio. In light of the Philippines one-China policy, a government-to-government apology was not on offer although that is what Taiwan demanded.

Washington is of course a friend of both sides and found itself in an unenviable position. Taiwan demanded that Washington take strong action and condemn the Philippine Government over the incident, a bridge too far in American eyes. Instead, the US lauded the Philippines for its expression of regret and expressed confidence that both sides would iron out their differences through negotiation.

The Philippines has already offered compensation to the victim’s family – but through private rather than through government channels. An unofficial apology and the offer of compensation has been made. The rest will no doubt be negotiated behind closed doors.

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