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  • Apr 18, 2014
  • Updated: 7:17am
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 hilariously dumb.
The author should read up on some fact first:
1 Phillippine had been killing Taiwan fishermen for the past 30 years and got away because they always took the boat. This time it failed to get the boat and Taiwan finally got evidences of the brutality of these corrupt "pirates" which explains why they went for the hard stance.
2 you third paragraph are much more biased and a touch of racist
3 The author should go back to research about "notion of a tributary state" for China. It is definitely different than imperialism in its simplest form as it DO NOT include military occupation& mass murdering the natives for land
4 research Taiwan's history: 200 years ago, it was controlled by the remanents of the Ming Dynasty after it drove off Dutch colonists before Qing. Han Chinese never did any mass murdering of Taiwan natives in Ming or Qing dynasty or later unlike the Dutch and Japanese. Author is being even more biased here without checking the facts
5 the outrage is done mostly by ROC China not PRC China and yet author in the second to last paragraph attribute the outrage to PRC China. Completely off the marks
6 The last paragraph about Malaysia has no bearing in the article and the topic, not sure why the author toss it in.
The author in the middle and last few paragraph really went off the topic into other tirades against PRC China instead of against ROC China. IT shows how much bias the author really has and the inability to even STAY ON TOPIC
It all seems rather simple, actually...Taiwan fishermen start respecting international fishing zones and species protection agreements and they don't get shot. I'm sure their boats are equipped with very modern Foxconn made navigational gadgets.
It's like on land...don't rob a bank, don't get possibly killed by a special action police team.
Yes from that very expensive gadget record shown that the boat was never outside of Taiwan exclusive economic water. A life has been taken here pls shows some respect or at least try to get your facts right before posting
I fully agree
An insightful article. Thank you, Mr. Bowring.
I am not sure what would be consider as a proportional way to handle this unfortunate incident to which similar shooting which took place about 7 years ago taken 2 lives. Reading your article clearly show me that you understand existing regional disputes and history as well the solitaire position of Taiwanese government in the world today, however the part that u are missing is the history of our fisherman been taunted and harassed lawfully or not by PCG in last 30 years aside from frequent arrest, detent of our crews and vessel, ransoms, and extortion. we seek the outcome of this unfortunate incident to be the last of its kind between Taiwan and Philippine, and clear whatever was done, agreed and promised between both countries were not honored in a sense to protect the fishing activity by our fisherman in the rightful water. Pls view the little people history and evidence so far shown to this killing before considering what is or not proportion action taken by our government. My hope as the least outcome of this incident would be no more blood shed to our fisherman in their rightful fishing ground and they can return home to their love ones with every departure for trips needed to live, work, and support their family like rest of us.



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