The two countries reached a diplomatic impasse after a Taiwanese fisherman was shot dead on May 9 by the Philippine Coast Guard in waters claimed by both sides.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s personal apology was not accepted by Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who regarded it insincere for the lack of official representation and compensation. Taipei held naval drills in waters near the Philippines and launched a series of sanctions to urge Manila to negotiate a resolution, which is, at the moment, nowhere in sight.
The two island countries are arguing over what actually happened in the disputed waters. The Philippines insist that the fisherman’s death was an “unfortunate and unintended loss” after an action of “self-defense” in which its coast guard tried to fend off two Taiwanese fishing vessels from sinking their ship. Taiwan calls this action a “cold-blooded murder” because the Philippine coast guardsmen fired more than 50 bullets at an unarmed boat that was only one-sixth of the size of theirs. This is “a killing that finds no excuses in the international law,” said President Ma.
This escalating tension between two close allies has caused embarrassment to the United States. A State Department spokesperson has urged both sides “to refrain from provocative actions” and “take all appropriate measures to clarify disagreements and prevent recurrence of such tragic events.” Meanwhile, as in other cases of territorial disputes in nearby waters, the US principle of taking no position on the disputed maritime boundary remains.
This position is not satisfactory. Americans should do much more to defuse this tension as well as promote a peaceful and workable model for other territorial disputes in the South China Sea. US intervention now would serve the interests of all parties.
For the Philippines, it could be the only way to persuade President Aquino to change his mind. Without American support, any concession to Taiwan under pressure of sanctions may backfire. This would be particularly true at a time when Filipinos just lost de facto controls of the Scarborough Shoal, a lagoon that is a consistently profitable fishing ground, to the Chinese after a naval standoff lasting for over nine months. Manila lacks motivation and incentive to solve this dispute in the absence of a US role.
For Taiwan, US intervention could be the best reason for Taipei to stop issuing more sanctions that actually carry few threats to Manila. The anti-Philippine sentiment surging in Taiwan has forced President Ma to take a harder and harder stance.
Room for conciliation has also been reduced by the Taiwanese decision to impose 11 sanctions while the two countries were attempting to negotiate a settlement. The sanctions included recalling envoys, freezing applications for work permits, suspending various exchanges and cooperation with the Philppines. These were issued with a promise to send warships and coast guard vessels to the disputed waters on a regular basis.
However, Taipei’s leverage may have been used up, while Manila may still feel no pain. A timely and proper shuttle diplomacy by Washington should be welcome to Taipei.
An active US role in this dispute to promote an effective negotiation can serve its own interests. With its tremendous influence in Taiwan and the Philippines, the cost for the US to mediate a resolution is low — much lower than to mediate other territorial disputes in the West-Pacific Ocean.
Washington has been looking without success for a common code of conduct among claimant countries in the South China Sea. A model for an agreement between Taiwan and the Philippines over fishing rights in overlapping seas might be regarded as a small version of a bigger maritime framework. At least, America can roll up sleeves now and start.
A proposal of an “Indo-Pacific-wide treaty of friendship and cooperation,” raised recently by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, might be the basis for a treaty to end the vicious cycle of sovereign tensions affecting not only Taiwan and the Philippines but also other West-Pacific countries. It would further pave the way for President Obama’s “strategic pivot to Asia.”
Charles I-hsin Chen is with the Centre of Taiwan Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.