The lake of dangerous disputes

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
Expect more skirmishes caused by intrusion of fishing vessels into our waters. Manila should learn from its latest crisis

Marites Dañguilan VitugThe good news is: tension between Taipei and Manila is de-escalating. The bad news is: there will be more of these disputes, in different variations and intensities.

“This will happen again,” Chito Sto. Romana, a China scholar, warns. “We share maritime space.”

Taiwan, while a renegade province, takes the same position as China in claiming most of the South China Sea. Definitely, it is not the only source of our anxiety. Big Brother, China, is the more formidable adversary.

Our leaders may just as well use this most recent crisis with Taiwan as a source of learning. Dealing with Taiwan can be tricky, though, because of our one-China policy. But we’ve had past experience to guide us.

In 2011, we had a skirmish with Taiwan when the Philippine government deported 14 Taiwanese nationals charged in our courts to China. What did President Aquino do? He conveyed a well-worded and nuanced “apology,” expressing “deep regrets for the damage and hurt feelings this has caused the people of Taiwan.”

More importantly, he sent a private emissary, former Senator Mar Roxas, who at that time, was not yet holding a government post but was widely seen as someone close to the president. Taiwan was much appeased although it tried to press for an apology from the government. Manila, of course, did not do this because of our one-China policy.

Taiwan was “livid,” Roxas said in a TV interview then. They imposed restrictions on visa applications and work permits of Filipinos. But after extended talks, Taiwan lifted the restrictions. The minister of foreign affairs wrote Roxas saying he appreciated the visit “which paved the way for a quick resolution to this unfortunate incident.”

“For them, it’s all about their national pride,” Roxas explained. “They keep telling us: what if the same happens to the Philippines?”

Taiwan’s Flor Contemplacion

Apparently, this time around, Malacañang forgot all about this “national pride” and emissary business. The killing of a Taiwanese fisherman is far more serious than the deportation row but Aquino did not send a private emissary.

Officials during the Ramos administration reminded me, at the height of the tension, that we were witnessing a highly-charged emotional response among the Taiwanese that went beyond geo-politics.

“Our situation is similar to Flor Contemplacion in reverse,” Jose Almonte, former national security adviser to President Ramos, says. “The level of the people is the most delicate. Once they get emotional, no one can stop them, not the government. That’s why this is very dangerous.”

There should be a back channel, Almonte continues, because the government cannot formally have talks with Taiwan.

(Contemplacion was the domestic helper executed in Singapore for murder in 1995. This caused an uproar in the Philippines, strained ties between Manila and Singapore, and was one of the major crises that faced the Ramos government.)

Another Ramos official explains the vehement reaction of the Taiwanese this way: “They have a soft spot for their fishermen. So Taiwanese are as emotional and as irrational now as Filipinos were when Flor Contemplacion was executed.”

Rebooting the Coast Guard

The other major thing to do is to orient the Coast Guard as well as the Navy on the geo-politics of the seas, the “diplomatic triangle” of China, Taiwan and the Philippines, and review the rules of engagement. The law of the seas prescribes restraint in the case of intruding vessels: seize, board and arrest.

“We should learn from Japan,” Sta. Romana tells me. “They use water cannons and plastic bullets.”

The crisis also showed the need for a fisheries agreement between Manila (through private organizations) and Taipei. This won’t be easy, Sta. Romana points out, because China will pose an objection. But it can be done.

In the case of Japan and Taiwan, Sta. Romana says, it took them 17 years to conclude their fisheries agreement.

Root of the problem

Okay, let’s pause for a moment and go back to the root of the problem.

Out there in the seas, on the edges of our land territory, it feels like one has reached the ends of the earth. Facing a seemingly limitless expanse of blue, the fishing boats look like specks, undulating in the distance. Undisturbed, they go about their business, eyeing bountiful harvests.

The waters are calm, the slight summer breeze eases the heat, and day quietly turns into night.

But there’s one thing missing in this idyllic picture. The vast, serene sea, with the pure color of a clear sky, is contested territory. It is fraught with danger.

It’s because China, with its 9-dashed line claim to almost the entire South China Sea—West Philippine Sea to us—appropriates this body of water for itself. Our giant neighbor’s claim, as Justice Antonio Carpio said in a recent speech, “converts the South China Sea into an internal Chinese lake.”

“It takes away the maritime entitlements of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and even Indonesia,” he continued. “It takes away our exclusive economic zone.” –

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.