Opinion: Taiwan and the Shooting Incident

The Philippines lies in a strategic area in the Pacific that is not only vital to shipping lanes and maritime trade, but is also bounded by resource-rich waters to the north of the main island of Luzon and the island-dotted territorial waters on its western side that stretch more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers).

For decades, foreign poachers have raided and ravaged marine life and resources inside Philippine territorial waters. Large trawlers owned by Japanese and Taiwanese fishing companies have exploited Philippine waters for the bounty of marine life for decades. Unable to protect its territorial waters, the Philippines can only raise its voice before the international community and pass diplomatic notes verbal to offending countries whose fishermen are caught operating illegally in its territorial waters.

That is until recently. On May 9, the Philippine Coast Guard fired at a Taiwanese fishing vessel that it claimed intruded into its waters and after the vessel reportedly tried to ram a patrol boat owned by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). A 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman died in the incident, in which a Filipino sailor fired 57 bullets at the fishing vessel.

The death of the Taiwanese fisherman has triggered an ongoing row with the government of Taiwan, with which the Philippines officially has no diplomatic ties but does maintain an economic and trade office.

Taiwan immediately demanded an explanation from the Philippine government and issued a 72-hour ultimatum to issue an apology – probably thinking of a state-issued apology, which is something the Philippine government cannot do in the absence of formal diplomatic relations.

President Benigno S. Aquino has apologized for the incident, but it hasn't been enough. Taipei froze the hiring of new Filipino workers, expelled Manila's envoy, suspended the travel of Taiwanese to the Philippines and conducted military drills in disputed waters. Taiwanese youngsters even attacked Filipino workers in Taiwan. After quibbling over a joint investigation, both Manila and Taipei agreed to mount a cooperative inquiry entailing an inspection of their respective vessels, helping defuse the tension.

The Taiwanese government, however, appears to have pulled the trigger much too soon.

The scene of the shooting incident appears to be closer to Luzon, the main island of the Philippines, than to Taiwan, although their exclusive economic zones could overlap because of island-territories that litter the waters between the two countries.

The Taiwanese government has also remained mum about the Philippine claim that the fishing vessel, one of five Taiwanese vessels that were fishing in the area, tried to ram the Philippine patrol boat.

The Taiwanese reaction may have been precipitated by the domestic troubles its government is facing. Further, it appears to be tolerating, if not abetting, domestic abuse and violence against Filipino residents in Taiwan.

The New York Times quoted Asia Sentinel contributing editor Philip Bowring, writing in the South China Morning Post: "Now it's Taiwan's turn to show some nationalist anger, and its target is the Philippines. Taipei's reaction seems more than just local political pressures on a weak President Ma Ying-jeou but linked to the desire to show that the island's Kuomintang government is at least as eager to pursue Chinese maritime claims as Beijing."

The Times further quotes him: "Ma Ying-jeou, who has low popularity ratings, was seeking to ride the wave of nationalism that, almost spontaneously, had taken over the whole of Taiwan."

The row, coming off a recent spat between the Philippines and China involving the Spratly Islands, has the Philippines once again feeling under siege. The Philippines just recently rounded up a Chinese fishing vessel poaching in Philippine waters and that also raised howls from Beijing.

China and Taiwan are both economic giants with which the Philippines maintains trade ties. While the two are still technically at civil war with each other, China and Taiwan have consistently shown their propensity to use their economic clout to exert pressure and bully neighbors.

Chinese and Taiwanese fishing vessels have been reported to have fired at Vietnamese fishermen in disputed territorial waters. Both have naval forces that can subdue any of Southeast Asia's best maritime forces, including the Philippines, which has among the region's most poorly equipped navies.

Until it becomes economically capable of resisting pressure from neighborhood bullies, the Philippines will have to endure diplomatic embarrassment and degradation. Nobody bullies the rich. And we are the poor neighbors, unfortunately.

On Tuesday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III announced a US$1.2 billion miitary buildup to help defend the nation against "bullies" in the region. It won't be enough, but it will serve notice.

We have already proven that flexing our economic muscles will make them respect us. This is what we achieved when we became one of the world's biggest tuna producers. We used to be the poor cousins among tuna producers in the region. Not anymore. We have grown into a multinational tuna fishing giant and our voices are listened to in the global tuna industry.

We can only expect China and Taiwan to respect our territorial integrity if we have the economic capacity to defend it. Until we can stand up to them, they will continue to bully us.

(Edwin Espejo blogs for Asian Correspondent, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement)