US treading carefully as row between Taipei and Manila escalates

Washington keen to avoid trouble between its allies as it steps up deployment in Asia-Pacific

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 May, 2013, 9:03am

Analysts expect Washington to tread cautiously in the row between two of its Asian allies over the killing of a Taiwanese fisherman by the Philippine coastguard.

The United States was unlikely to play an active role in the dispute, said Professor Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, of the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University in Taipei.

"With its strategic 'pivot' to the Asia-Pacific region, the US doesn't want to see any conflicts between its allies because it would get it into trouble," Huang said. "It's not convenient for Washington to make any comment because the joint judicial investigation by Taipei and Manila into this fatal shooting hasn't formally started."

A Filipino security expert also said the US would be careful not to anger its two allies.

Herman Kraft, executive director of the Manila-based Institute for Strategic and Development Studies said: "As far as the US is concerned, they would rather not be playing any significant role or saying anything that might put them in an awkward position with either of the two players, which are allies."

Kraft, also a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, pointed out that US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki had used the word "confrontation" to describe the shooting.

Psaki said in Washington on Monday: "We regret the tragic death of a Taiwan fishing boat master during a May 9 confrontation at sea with a Philippine patrol vessel."

Kraft said the use of that word "can connote aggression on either side". He added: "It basically presents both sides as equally guilty or equally innocent. The statement does not indicate whether anybody started the confrontation."

He said the best thing for the US to do, to avoid angering either ally, was "to let the current levels of tension fizzle out … let their anger dissipate first".

He said: "Then they could offer the usual good offices and become a sort of conduit to exchanges between Taiwan and the Philippines. I'm not sure the US could effectively play any role immediately."

Dr Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, suggested it was unlikely that the US would seek to play a mediating role in the stand-off. "It would probably be more hopeful that the row would die down peaceably, after a couple of weeks."

Professor Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, agreed that the US would keep its distance.

"The last thing it wants to do is create a situation where it gets yelled at by everyone," Brown said. "The best thing the US can do is background diplomacy.

"It has leverage, no doubt about that, but getting dragged into this situation will create a huge headache for it."