Thursday, 16 May 2013

The Fishing Boat Incident In The Philipines: Initial Response

Since last week's incident in the Philipine Sea in which a Phillipine coast guard vessel opened fire on a Taiwanese fishing boat - killing one fisherman - the newspapers have saturated themselves in the noise of nationalism. The politicians are burning flags and effigies and even the people I ordinarily take to be reasonable have suddenly turned horribly unreasonable; ordinary Filipino people living in Taiwan, who presumably have nothing whatsoever to do with this incident are now going to be punished by civil associations (e.g. being excluded from the upcoming annual boat races and such), whilst future Filipino immigrants to Taiwan, who also will have had nothing to do with this incident, are now going to be denied visas.

Perhaps the extent of this wild-fire stupidity is being exaggerated by the intense media coverage, but in some sense it may also be being fanned further by the media coverage; all of the Taiwanese people I have talked to have expressed outrage, and - bar one or two exceptions - none of them seem to have had any doubts.

On the location of the incident itself, I cannot see how the Taiwanese claims to legality are at all defensible; in my opinion there is a very strong case to be made that the fishing boat was in waters to which only vessels registered with the Filipino authorities were legally entitled (for one major reason: the R.O.C government has not been a signatory to any of the relevant international agreements pertaining to governance of the seas since it lost its' place at the UN to the PRC in the 1970s). The import of that point is the dubious nature of the claims to legality made by various Taiwanese politicians and journalists; some of them may have simply been telling outright lies. The location does lie within what would be the overlapping "exclusive economic zones" of 200 nautical miles (as described by a UN convention) of both Taiwan and the Philipines - if the government of Taiwan (the ROC) had been a signatory to the UN convention under which those legal principles apply. Moreover, even if it had been, then the principle of proximity would seem to strengthen the Filipino case....

That google earth shot focuses in on Balintang Island because the incident allegedly occured 43 nautical miles to the east; the island, and the others surrounding it, are all territory claimed by the Filipino state. By contrast, the white line indicates the 164 nautical mile distance from the south-east of Taiwan. Clearly, the incident occured in waters much closer to the Philipines than to Taiwan. Had a bilateral agreement on fishing rights already existed, it would probably have incorporated the proximity principle in some way. For this reason, and also because the Philipines' government is a signatory to the UN convention whereas Taiwan's government is not, it is not immediately obvious how the Taiwanese can lay any legal claim to fishing rights in this area.

In addition to the location of the incident vis-a-vis state sovereignty claims, the other point of controversy is what actually happened in the incident itself. The Filipino claim is that the shooting of the Taiwanese fishing boat and the death of one fisherman occured after the coast guard vessel had been rammed following its' interception of the Taiwanese vessel. The Taiwanese deny this. As yet, no video evidence has emerged online to document clearly what happened. To believe the Filipino case, we have to believe that the Taiwanese fishermen (and their port authorities) disregarded the legal claims of the Filipino government in pursuit of the fish and when confronted by the Filipino coast guard, simply ignored them in order to continue fishing and then rammed the coast guard vessel when a boarding attempt was made. To believe the Taiwanese case, we have to believe that the Filipino coast guard opened fire on the Taiwanese fishing vessel either after having followed warning and boarding protocol, or without having done so. Without evidence, no firm conclusions ought to be drawn, but the Filipino case does seem to me to be much easier to believe than the Taiwanese case.

For the Taiwanese however, it seems that the Taiwanese case is ipso facto correct. I had thought to jot down some more remarks about nationalism, but (a) I am too busy with work, and (b) I am overwhelmed by just how many ways this whole thing is staggeringly stupid.


Later... two earlier posts on nationalism here and here.


  1. The unquestioning "rally round the flag" sentiments in East Asia are more than a little disconcerting. To me, East Asia resembles Europe at the turn of the last century, storm clouds gathering. The only thing Europe lacked at that time was a potential regional hegemonic power, which East Asia currently has (China). Otherwise, the parallels are frightening.

  2. This just reached a new nadir of stupidity:


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