Taiwan's reaction to killing of fisherman is out of proportion
Philip Bowring says the anger at Philippines over the killing of a fisherman in disputed waters smacks of nationalistic chauvinism and will only aggravate regional tensions
Now it's Taiwan's turn to show some nationalist anger, and its target is the Philippines. Behind the outrage over the death of a fisherman lies suspicion of a Han chauvinism that can only exacerbate the tensions between China and its southern, non-Chinese neighbours.
For sure, the Philippine coastguard was guilty of the trigger-happy behaviour so common in a country which inherited its gun culture from the US and whose armed services are not known for their discipline. But the reaction by the government in Taipei, with economic and other sanctions, is out of all proportion given that this unfortunate event was clearly the result of local misjudgment rather than the state policy of the sort which sends Chinese warships well within the Philippines' exclusive economic zones, not to mention several incidents when Chinese vessels have opened fire on Vietnamese fishing boats and killed people.
For the Han chauvinists, an apology from the president of the Philippines is not enough. The Filipinos must grovel, be reminded that they, like Malays generally, are the serfs of the region. It fits well with the Hong Kong government's arrogant categorising of the country as in the same danger league as Syria because of the unnecessary loss of life in the bus hijacking incident.
The action of the Filipino coastguard was out of proportion, even assuming the fishing vessel was in Philippine waters and resisting arrest. But Taiwan's large, well-equipped fishing fleet is known almost worldwide for its contempt for others' fishing rights and the attempts to limit fishing to preserve species.
The fact that Taiwan has no formal diplomatic ties with any significant country makes it easy to avoid such transgressions becoming government-to-government issues.
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 same has been seen in respect of the Diaoyu islands even though a limited deal with Japan on fishing has been agreed.
Taiwan's consequent higher profile in South China Sea issues makes peaceful accommodation in the region more difficult and shows the Taipei government placing more emphasis on old nationalist doctrines than strengthening relations with its non-Chinese neighbours.
It is a reminder that the now infamous "nine-dash line" by which China claims almost all the islands and related rights in the South China Sea was not a Communist invention but dates back to KMT rule. That was a time when Chinese maps made claim to chunks of Burma and other adjacent countries.
Even though most of these land borders have since been settled with the respective countries, the assumption that neighbours were once tributary states and should be again runs deep. How else can one explain the doubts now being aired by semi-official organs in China that Okinawa, centre of the old Ryukyu kingdom, is not Japanese because it was once a tributary state of China? The notion of a tributary state, one which kowtows to Beijing for political support, the right to trade or simply to give the emperor prestige, is imperialism in its simplest form.
In the Philippine case, China never exercised the attempts at hegemony which it applied to Vietnam and other contiguous states. But Filipinos are aware that the majority of people in Taiwan until some 200 years ago were closely related to those across the Luzon Strait. Incorporation into the Qing empire in the late 17th century was followed by colonisation which meant that the fate of the Taiwan indigenes was no better than that of native Americans.
As late as 1873, Beijing's admitted failure to bring all the island under control provided an excuse for a Japanese invasion to suppress "piracy" by indigenous groups - who more than two centuries earlier had successfully resisted a Japanese invasion. The attitudes of China as conqueror and coloniser still lurk despite the Philippines' successful, peaceful absorption of huge numbers of Chinese (including President Benigno Aquino's ancestors) who are better integrated than in most of Southeast Asia.
The overdone outrage over the death of the fisherman simply adds to regional suspicions of Chinese attitudes. Likewise, it is easy for most of those involved to see through Beijing's proclaimed attempt to prioritise relations with Asean by making Southeast Asia the first overseas destination of new Foreign Minister Wang Yi . By visiting four countries but avoiding Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, the visit raised suspicions that it was simply to try to stir divisions within Asean while China has given away nothing either in terms of its territorial claims or refusal to discuss issues except bilaterally.
The omission of Malaysia was especially interesting given that China has so far avoided direct conflict even though its claims take in Malaysian gas fields and Layang Layang, a coral atoll 320 kilometres off the Borneo coast, which lies well within the Chinese claim just outside that of Philippines. It has an airstrip, small naval base and dive resort, and the Malaysian air force flies regular sorties over it.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator