The Philippines lies in a strategic area in the Pacific that is not only vital to shipping lanes and maritime trade, but also bounded by resource-rich waters to the north in 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).
The Philippine used to be Asia’s second largest economy, next only to Japan, before World War II broke out. Now, it is one of Southeast Asia’s laggards.
(READ MORE: Taiwan botches an international incident)
For decades, foreign poachers raided and ravaged marine life and resources inside its territorial waters. Large trawlers owned by Japanese and Taiwanese fishing companies exploited Philippine waters for its bounty of marine life. Unable to protect its territorial waters, the Philippines can only raise its voice before the international community and pass diplomatic note 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 which it claimed intruded into its waters and after it 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.
(READ MORE: Fishermen pay price in Asia’s volatile sea rifts)
The death of the Taiwanese fisherman triggered the ongoing row with the government of Taiwan with which the Philippines officially has no diplomatic ties but maintains an economic and trade mission 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 that is something the Philippine government cannot do in the absence of formal diplomatic relations. It said it will impose sanctions against the Philippines. It threatened to suspend the hiring of Filipino workers and also issued travel alerts urging its citizens to avoid traveling to the Philippines. It also recalled its economic representative to the country and said it will suspend exchanges between high-level officials, trade and academic affairs.
The Taiwanese government appeared to have pulled the trigger much too soon.
The coordinates of the shooting incident it released appeared to be more proximate to the main Luzon island of the Philippines than Taiwan, although their exclusive economic zones could overlap because of island-territories that litter the waters between the two countries.
The Taiwanese government was also mum about the Philippine claim that the fishing vessel, one of the five Taiwanese vessels that were fishing in the area, tried to ram the Philippine patrol boat.
The Taiwanese reaction may have been precipitated by domestic trouble 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 South China Morning Post commentator Philip Bowring:
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 under siege.
The Philippines just recently rounded up a Chinese fishing vessel poaching in Philippine waters and it also raised howls from Beijing.
China and Taiwan are both economic giants with which the Philippines maintain trade ties. The two are still technically at civil war with each other. But China and Taiwan have consistently shown their propensity to use their economic clout to exert pressure and bully its neighbors.
Chinese and Taiwanese fishing vessels have been reported to have fired at Vietnamese fishermen they chanced upon 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, May 21, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III announced a US$1.2 billion “military upgrade to help defend country’s maritime territory 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. Like what we have 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.