Aquino has damaged another partnership

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 February, 2011, 12:00am

The diplomatic debacle over the killing of Hong Kong tourists by a gunman in Manila six months ago should have been an epiphany for Philippine President Benigno Aquino. His decision to put protocol ahead of common sense by communicating first and foremost with Beijing drove ties with our city to all-time lows. But that lesson does not seem to have sunk in, as the handling of the deporting of 14 Taiwanese suspected criminals to the mainland demonstrates. From a politically correct viewpoint, it would seem sensible, but in the cold light of reality it is a poor substitute for doing what is right.

Unsurprisingly, Taiwan's government is outraged. Lawmakers want the island's representative to the Philippines recalled, while its foreign ministry is reviewing ties and exchanges. Strong trade and tourism links and the job security of 77,000 Filipinos have been put in jeopardy. It is almost identical to what happened with Hong Kong.

Like most countries, the Philippines recognises Beijing rather than Taipei. Those links go back to 1975 and have been regularly strengthened. But Taiwan is an important source of revenue for the Southeast Asian nation, being its fifth-biggest foreign investor and provider of tourists, the buyer of US$3 billion in goods each year and the reason for millions of dollars in remittances. Keeping on good terms with both requires a delicate diplomatic walk.

The deportation of the Taiwanese on a mainland-bound plane with 10 Chinese national fellow suspects last week was a misstep. They had all been arrested in December for being part of an international fraud ring. Requests by Taiwan's government for the return of its citizens were ignored. The Philippines instead dealt with the matter under its one-China policy, apparently also believing that as the offences were committed on the mainland, Beijing would better be able to serve justice.

Diplomacy is more than following the letter of the law; it is also about avoiding doing and saying what is wrong. In his eight months in office, Aquino has damaged two important partnerships. It is time he took a commonsense approach to foreign relations.