FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Taiwan, Philippines fishing spat muddies SE Asian waters
, July 6, 2013
Anyone visiting Taiwan will be amazed at the quality and variety of the seafood. But a lot of it comes from far afield. That’s why anything that threatens Taiwan’s fisheries is taken very seriously.
Taiwan is an island, about half the size of Tasmania, with a population of 23 million — about the same as that of Australia, which in area is many times bigger. Most of Taiwan is mountainous and not suited to agriculture. That’s why the sea has always been so important to Taiwan — because it is an irreplaceable source of protein.
When times have been hard — and they often have been — it is the ocean that has sustained Taiwan. Her people have a strong bond with the sea that transcends mere utilitarianism. Matsu, the Buddhist goddess of the sea, is worshipped each year in an elaborate ritual that lasts for days.
When a Philippine Coast Guard vessel fired on an unarmed Taiwan fishing-boat on May 9, 2013, killing an elderly fisherman, it sent shock waves through the region.
Hong Shi-cheng was a crew-member of the Taiwan fishing-boat Guang Da Xing no. 28, which was fishing in an economic zone of exploitation claimed by both Taiwan and the Philippines. The fishing-boat was unable to respond, as it was unarmed and the Philippines Coast Guard boat was carrying automatic weapons. Claims by the Philippines that the Taiwan boat tried to ram the Philippines vessel do not appear credible, as the Philippines vessel was six times as big as the Taiwan fishing-boat.
Both the government and people of Taiwan were outraged by the incident. Some 85,000 Filipino guest workers are employed in Taiwan, most of whom are lowly paid labourers and factory workers or maids and housekeepers. Their remittances provide a valuable source of foreign exchange for the cash-strapped Philippine government. Some incidents against Filipinos in Taiwan were reported following the shooting, but the people of Taiwan are not usually given to retaliation against individuals.
For the government of Taiwan, the situation is different. Taiwan has recently struck a deal with Japan to allow joint exploitation of the fishery resources surrounding the Diaoyutai Islands (also known as the Senkaku Islands), which were at the centre of a series of incidents involving Japan, Taiwan and China.
The Diaoyutai Islands are off Taiwan’s northern coast. Their name translates as “the fishing islands” and are claimed by Taiwan, China and Japan. The Taiwan authorities estimate that this agreement could allow Taiwan to increase its fish catch by 10 per cent. They are now in negotiations with the Philippines authorities to reach a similar agreement.
This recent incident is important for several reasons. Taiwan needs food for its people. The waters surrounding Taiwan have been almost fished out, with their fishermen having to scour the world for their catches.
These fishermen do not have a good reputation for observing quotas or managing fisheries. When I first went to Taiwan over 30 years ago, I became very exasperated with people asking me, “What is Taiwan famous for in Australia?” Eventually, I told them the truth: that they were famous for “making junk and stealing our fish”.
The once “putrid little factory island” is now one of the world’s most important high-tech hubs. Very little junk comes out of Taiwan. She makes computer chips, exercise equipment, high-end bicycles, medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, but still needs to feed itself. That’s why fishing is important.
Southern Taiwan, where most of the fishing fleet is based, has lagged behind the north. The, capital, Taipei, is a governmental, commercial, publishing and educational centre. “Taipei” means literally “north Taiwan”.
Kaohsiung, the main centre in the south of the island, is what Carl Sandburg said of Chicago, “ a city of broad shoulders”. It boasts steelmaker China Steel. It is the island’s biggest container port and also services the fishing fleet. The fishermen bring a lot of money into an area that that always lagged behind the north. And they can swing a lot of votes.
The other factor is that Taiwan is officially known as the Republic of China. The ROC’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are almost identical to those of the People’s Republic of China.
In 1949, the ROC government, led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, after their defeat by Mao Zedong’s communists on the mainland, retreated to Taiwan. The ROC maintained its claim to be the government of all China, and, as far as I am aware, has not abandoned this claim.
Both the ROC and the PRC agree there is only one China. So, when the PRC offered to back Taiwan “with a boat full of ammunition” in its dispute with the Philippines, it sent shock waves around the region.
Taiwan already has garrisons on several of the disputed islets in the South China Sea. Previously, no-one had been killed in these disputes. Now someone has, and it’s not a good omen.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who for many years worked as a journalist in Taiwan.