Events over the last couple weeks have re-drawn attention, rightfully, to an oft-overlooked player in the South China Sea disputes, Taiwan (aka. Republic of China). SCS analyses often dismiss Taiwan’s claims as a marginal issue and is only mentioned in the context of mainland China’s claims, however as the most recent incidents with the Philippines demonstrate, Taiwan’s strategic importance to the South China Sea (and East China Sea) is actually woven into the very core of disputes.
On May 9, a 65 year old Taiwanese fishermen named Hung Shih-cheng was shot and killed by the Philippine Coast Guard in a standoff. The PH Coast Guard claims that they shot at Mr. Hung’s vessel to disable the engine as a self-defense mechanism because the fishing boat was attempting to ram-and-run. Eye-witness accounts through Taiwanese media however, report that the boat was struck by 30-40 bullets, which seems excessive. Mr. Hung was unarmed, accompanied on the boat by his son and two other sailors.
On May 10th, the news broke and Philippine officials acknowledged the incident and indicated investigations have began. Coast guard commander Rodolfo Diwata Isorena indicated that the 11 officers involved have been suspended from duty. On May 12, with tensions running high on both sides, Taiwan issued a 72 hour ultimatum to the Philippine authorities, demanding formal apology from the President, appropriate reparations to the fishermen’s family, and extradition of perpetrators to Taiwan for investigation to ensure “justice”. On May 15th, just minutes before the deadline, the Philippines announced that it would send its representative to Taiwan to apologize but that no extradition will occur and was unclear with regards to reparations. Taiwan subsequently rejected this apology declaring it insincere and insufficient. It announced a series of retaliatory actions, including withdrawing its diplomatic representative, conducting elevated sea patrols, and sanctions on work permits for the nearly 87,000 Filipinos working in Taiwan. The last action would prove to be costly to the Philippines which sends over a million workers overseas each year and is heavily reliant on remittances.
On May 17, Taiwan carried through with its threat to conduct joint Naval – Coast Guard drills in the SCS, the first time ever crossing the 20* latitude “temporary enforcement line” since the Taiwanese government established it in 2003. Taiwan indicated that these drills, along with heightened patrols (increase of 1-2 ships to 3-4 ships) are not a one-off occurance but will continue indefinitely, in order to ensure the safety of its fishermen. Continue reading