• Fri
  • Dec 19, 2014
  • Updated: 5:00am
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 May, 2013, 3:55am

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


Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, www.asiasentinel.com, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.

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


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This article is now closed to comments

Philip Bowring finally puts this in the right perspective again. Spot on!
I'm a big fan of Taiwan but Mr Bowring is right. Had the Japanese coast guard and not the Philippines coast guard killed a Taiwanese fisherman this issue wouldn't have gone nearly this far. This looks like the rich and powerful country picking on the poorer and weak country.
Chinamen have no right to fish in the Philippines' waters, so says Mr. Bowring. His judicial opinion on international law is crystal clear. After downgrading past charges of Han racism to chauvinism, for which SCMP Han readers should be grateful, he has adjudicated in favor of Philippines for its rights to territorial integrity.
As a guide to his future opinions on Philippines’ dispute with Malaysia or other neighbors, his next verdict will likely favor the country which is the greater enemy of the “Han race.” Presumably, this race categorization applies to those who resent the noblesse oblige of opium peddlers, or those aiding and abetting them. Sorry, Mr. Bowring, I don’t mean to call attention to your pedigree.
Being a Chinese thoroughbred born and raised in Hong Kong, I try to behave like a Confucian gentleman but not a Han chauvinist. Yes, I am fully aware we are a white man’s burden. So at least give us a little credit that we appreciate Adam Smith, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin even more than the supercilious classical liberals in British Isles.
Hong Kongers are at a crossroads. Some don’t know whether they should hate China more than yellow man’s own inferiority complex. Self-hate bananas indulge in the former and play down the latter. For sure you can’t label them Han chauvinists. I know for sure Mrs. Bowring isn’t one.
Philip Bowring is not a racist because he points out the fact that Han culture has very deep racist undercurrents. Most Han are in denial about this because they cannot bear to face unpleasant truths about themselves, in which respect one is reminded of the Japanese psychosis of denial over WWII.
It is totally out of proportion to cut diplomatic relations and impose sanctions over the death of one person in disputed circumstances. President Ma Ying-jeou is shamelessly exploiting this incident to bolster flagging political support. Taiwan and the PRC have been actively encouraging their fishing vessels to encroach into waters under other nations' sovereignty, Taiwan being egged on by PRC. With characteristic double standards, Han commentators to this article call their critics racists.
The Philippines President must firmly resist this bullying at all costs. The PRC in its hubris will soon go too far and be recognised as the neo-imperialist it is.
In the region, smaller SE Asian nations feeling the PRC's unscrupulous bullying and tactics of divide and rule are beginning to band together. They will be driven into the arms of other powers.
Bowring has no where to go; he was one of those failed-in-the-west,-try-Asia types, this should be evident from his dismal-quality, hate-filled journalism. Now he's just frustrated that the west has failed, no longer colonial exploiters, and thus his status has diminished.
Mr. Bowring may or may not be racist. But you are absolutely, positive one and proud of it. Hateful people are sociopaths with no sense of decency or shame.
I think it is about time for Japan, Phillippines, and other unspeciffied ASEAN nations to develop powerful navies to formed an invisible mashes to blockade chinese expansion, any ships big or small from the PLAN sailing down West Philippines Sea will be big risks of being blow up. Japan and others AEAN nations must develop nuclear weapons to counter attacks in case chinese are provoking and threaten with nuclear weapons. Chinese are threat to mankind, if Mao killed 60 millions of its own kind what make you think it respect for other cultures.
I fully agree
No wonder FEER folded
The practiced bigot is so disconnected
PB and FC are better / worse jokers than Dean Martin /Jerry Louis
"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" ?
"Filipinos are aware that the majority of people in Taiwan until some 200 years ago were ..."?
It takes one with incorrectable colonial mentality and stupid simplicity to come up with such opinions.
As a citizen of the United States of America, I question the statement "the trigger-happy behaviour so common in a country which inherited its gun culture from the US." Filipinos have a distinct culture from the United States and always have had. They certainly have had ample time to diverge from any cultural influences remaining since the Republic of the Phillippines gained complete independence shortly after 1948.
And I will defend my nation's "gun culture" - explicitly designed as a corrective against tyranny - in ANY comparison with other cutlures which often place much less value on individual rights. You can search the recent history of the United States of America in vain for people being run down by tanks in their national capitol.




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