By Michal Thim
In my previous post, I examined the general nature of the current dispute between the Philippines and Taiwan and the foreign policy motivations on the Taiwan side. Yet, the behaviour of Taiwan’s government in the aftermath of the incident from May 9 that resulted in death of a Taiwanese fisherman after his boat was fired upon by the Philippines coast guard (PCG) has a strong domestic component that deserves to be discussed here separately.
On May 11, Taipei issued a 72-hour ultimatum which expired at midnight on May 14. The government demanded that four conditions be met otherwise it would introduce sanctions, including those that would affect Filipino workers seeking employment in Taiwan. When the ultimatum was issued, there was already significant pressure on the government from legislators, public opinion, and both major parties. Kuomintang (KMT) lawmakers denouncing shooting as an act of war and a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator burning the Philippines national flag during a protest in front of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO, the Philippines unofficial embassy in Taipei) are just some of the more jingoist attitudes on view recently in Taiwan.
This does not mean that the government should disregard the public outrage in Taiwan over PCG’s conduct. Whatever happened on 9 May in Balintang Channel, a 15-ton fishing boat with a 4-men crew does not seem to represent a threat that would justify the intensive fire that hit the boat 40-50 times according to various reports. Indeed, the investigators from the Phillipnes are contemplating that the PCG might have violated rules of engagement. Furthermore, use of force against unarmed vessels is problematic under international law. Ultimately, the video recording that was allegedly made by the PCG vessel crew may confirm Manila’s version, but since it has not been released yet, speculation mounts and the damage has been already done.
Taipei’s ultimatum has passed and a delayed apology eventually came. However, it was then rejected as insincere and the Taiwanese government’s sanctions came into effect. In two waves, the Ma Yingjeou government introduced 11 measures that include the suspension of hiring Filipino workers, a travel warning discouraging Taiwanese to travel to the Philippines, and the announcement of forthcoming military exercises in the disputed area. The DPP opposition added further oil to the fire by demanding even harsher actions. Other retaliatory measures included Taipei City Government’s retraction of an invitation to the Philippines team to compete in the dragon boat festival race and the suspension of exchanges with sister cities in the Philippines.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not show any diplomatic subtlety when it displayed pictures on its homepage in both Chinese and English bluntly accusing the Philippines of cold-blooded murder. The Philippines’ response, has not been flawless either. If the government wanted to defuse tensions, explaining absence of a formal apology by its adherence to “One China” principle, meaning that Taiwan as Republic of China is not recognized by the Philippines and thus does not deserve formal apology, is not the best way to achieve that.
The actions of the Ma Ying-jeou administration, the KMT and the DPP, can all be interpreted as courting popular support. President Ma, with his 14 percent low approval rating, seized the chance to divert attention from criticism regarding his government’s handling of the economy, disregarding Taiwan’s international image in the process for the sake of domestic political posturing. This is not unusual in Taiwan’s politics, where foreign policy issues are usually not the most prominent ones for the electorate or politicians. The DPP for its part wants to take some credit for acting tough, partly compelled by the fact that the victim’s community was based in the Pingtung, an area with strong support for the DPP. In short, both sides of Taiwan’s political sphere can be blamed for heating up tensions that started with a tragic death.
There is a darker side to the story. Many western visitors and expatriates frequently attest to the kindness and hospitality of Taiwanese towards foreigners; something that Taiwanese themselves take great pride in saying. Yet, this courtesy appears more likely to be extended to westerners. Racist or xenophobic attitudes towards workers from Southeast Asian countries are common and the current crisis has unleashed numerous examples of this behaviour. Foreign workers are reported as being requested to reveal their nationality in markets or shops and are refused service if they are from the Philippines. Taipei Times quoted a worker from Cambodia as saying, “I’ve not been attacked, because I’m from Cambodia, but I don’t feel comfortable when people keep asking me whether I’m from the Philippines when I’m just going to buy lunch.” On 16 May, a Filipino worker was attacked by four men and beaten with iron sticks and baseball bats in Tainan. Although it appears to be isolated incident, reports about verbal harassment are more frequent. And those attitudes may be well reflected at the political level. Philip Bowring argues in his piece published in the South China Morning Post that Taiwan’s reaction is driven by Han chauvinism and adds (referring to Taipei’s displeasure with an unofficial apology) that “[For] the Han chauvinists, an apology from the president of the Philippines is not enough. The Filipinos must grovel, be reminded that they, like Malays generally, are the serfs of the region.”
Political posturing is one thing, picking on isolated vulnerable individuals just because they are from a country in dispute with their host is another. Yet, they are not disconnected. Taiwanese politicians and media that jumped on the boat of nationalist rhetoric, should understand that flexing their muscles externally may result in xenophobic actions at home. Fortunately, politicians from both sides, including President Ma and Taipei Mayor Hau, were quick to urge the public not to vent anger against the 87,154 Philippines nationals that reside in Taiwan along with almost 200,000 Indonesians, 100,000 Vietnamese and over 60,000 Thais according to official sources.
Perhaps next time politicians should urge the public not to display anger at all and lead the way in the process. Both governments will eventually find a way to turn relations back to normal although some actions on Taiwan’s side make it difficult. However, damage done to person-to-person relations would be more complicated to repair if the trend continues and spirals out of control. Needless to say, Taiwan greatly benefits from the presence of Filipino workers and in the long term it would be Taiwan that would suffer. Moreover, despite displays of nationalist fervour, the situation between Taiwan and the Philippines is not as dire as when similar incidents occurred between Japan and the PRC and small acts of kindness that took place during those days in Taiwan sent a positive message.
Michal Thim is a PhD student in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham and a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. He also owns the blog Taiwan in Perspective and tweets @michalthim