Taiwan botches an international incident
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Taiwan botches an international incident

Taipei’s misguided response to shooting of fisherman by Philippines Coast Guard speaks of bigger problems at home

The May 9 killing of a Taiwanese fisherman by the Philippines Coast Guard in waters near the Philippines sparked a row between Taiwan and Philippines that is only now beginning to ebb as negotiations have begun.

The fishing boat had hardly arrived back in port in Taiwan before the authorities there began heaping blame on Manila. Within a week Taipei had rejected Manila’s attempts to apologize as “insincere” and President Ma Ying-jeou was claiming that the killing was a cold-blooded murder. Taiwan representative offices abroad even sent around a press release making that argument. Within days the Taiwan government issued a 72-hour ultimatum and then imposed sanctions on Manila, ordering naval exercises as a display of force, which it now denies.

It is not hard to see why the government in Taipei reacted so strongly. President Ma’s approval ratings are below 20% and have been for months. Foreign disputes represent a welcome distraction from the government’s failure to make much progress on the domestic front with Taiwan’s sluggish economy, along with the deeper problems of income stagnation and rising income inequality.

Surprisingly, the killing appeared to strike a deep chord among Taiwanese at home, who are almost totally ignorant of the way Taiwanese fisherman are viewed outside Taiwan. Social network sites were filled with posts and videos that gave simplistic views of the event, and thousands of Taiwanese who had never cared about fisherman, EEZs, or the Law of the Sea suddenly found themselves filled with a strong certainty about them.

(READ MORE: Opinion: Time for Philippines to stand up to the bullies)

On a deeper level the public’s response represented the constant search, especially among the young, for social issues that transcend the fundamental Blue-Green divide in Taiwan. J Michael Cole, a Taiwan-based writer, identified
this surge in domestic feeling
as an important driver of the government’s bungled response to the killing. By accepting the
Philippines’ apology “to the people of Taiwan”, he says, the government could have resolved the issue quietly. After all, the Ma government knew perfectly well that Manila’s adherence to Beijing’s One China policy would not permit it to make a “state to state” apology. Cole observes:

What happened? How did Ma’s diplomats lose control of the situation? The principal reason is that Taipei allowed itself to be carried away by the domestic indignation over the slaying of an unarmed Taiwanese (we should furthermore note that a similar incident in 2006 remains unresolved). Given Ma’s low popularity ratings, he would understandably seek to ride the wave of nationalism that, almost spontaneously, had taken over the whole of Taiwan.

Cole is half right, there was a wave of something akin to nationalism, but it was not spontaneous. Rather, the government had adopted an intransigent position from the beginning, helping to push the public and guide its response. Taiwan’s legislators from both sides of the partisan divide, sensitive to the demands of their fishermen constituents, also adopted tough positions and threw around tough rhetoric.

The absurdity of the government’s “You accept blame and then we’ll investigate after that” position was illuminated in a series of widely circulated comments from a Taiwanese law professor in the United Kingdom: “Sadly, denied statehood way too long, Taiwan doesn’t understand how sovereign states interact with each other in the postwar international legal system.” Indeed, an insightful Bloomberg piece contended that part of the public’s anger was a reaction to the fact of Taiwan’s exile from the international system.

Philip Bowring, the astute Hong Kong-based commentator, argued that there is another, darker driver of the reaction in Taiwan: Han Chauvinism – the feeling that the Han people are superior to all others, but especially to brown-skinned peoples. He noted:

For the Han chauvinists, an apology from the president of the Philippines is not enough. The Filipinos must grovel, and be reminded that they, like Malays generally, are the serfs of the region.

In a way, Taiwan’s treatment of brown-skinned Filipinos and the resources in their waters mirrors its treatment of its aborigines and their resources at home. Han Chauvinism and its step-cousin, Chinese nationalism, are also present in another way: Chinese nationalists in the KMT have long attempted to get the Taiwan citizenry to identify with China’s expansionist claims to the South China, the Senkakus and other neighboring territories. To date, the public, which largely sees itself as Taiwanese, not Chinese, remains cold to this campaign.

With the two sides in talks over participation in each other’s investigations, things have begun to cool here in Taipei. As Cole observed, the Ma government threw away its moral high ground when it decided to reject Manila’s apologies. What kind of footing it will be able to find at home and abroad remains to be seen.

About the author
Michael Turton is a writer, blogger, and teacher based in Taichung, Taiwan. He comments on Taiwan affairs from his well-known blog, The View from Taiwan.