May Marine Madness Addendum
If Taiwanese politicians and media were hoping that the US would sail to their defence by condemning the Philippines they are apparently mistaken. Instead, for their efforts, and to the current administration’s deep embarrassment, the US is taking a decidedly neutral approach to the whole conflagration whilst calling for all parties to refrain from provocative actions:
However, US Department of State spokesperson Jennifer Psaki has confirmed that Washington is now trying to play a role in calming the growing crisis.
“We regret the tragic death of a Taiwan fishing boat master during the May 9 confrontation at sea with a Philippine patrol vessel,” Psaki said on Monday.
“The United States has been in touch with both the Philippine government and the Taiwan authorities regarding the incident,” she said.
Psaki said that the US welcomed the Philippine government’s pledge to conduct a “full and transparent” investigation.
Asked if the US was worried about a possible escalation, Psaki said: “We continue to urge all parties, in any scenario, to ensure maritime safety and to refrain from provocative actions.”
“The Philippine government is going to be conducting an investigation and they will be working with the Taiwan authorities to establish what happened in this case,” she said.
Between 2000 and 2008, the US often pleased Beijing and the KMT by tarring President Chen and the DPP administration with the ‘label’ provocative, thereby displacing Beijing aggression onto a Taiwan that threatened no-one’s territory and did little more, at least in the way of island malarky, than fly the President to the Spratley’s once in a campaign stunt designed to distract attention from poor domestic economic news. No matter what Chen did, State would intone its warning against provocative actions. Poor old State was getting a phone call from its puppet master in Beijing once every 24 hours and this was the only way they could cope.
In 2008, President Ma ran and won on a campaign that stressed that Taiwan would no longer be ‘a thorn in the side’ of either Beijing or the US. It would be a responsible partner - making no declarations of independence or unification or anything provocative in the slightest. The US welcomed this explicitly and tacitly supported Ma in both elections.
Gone were the days when giant Taiwan would spit out threatening and insulting rhetoric that hurt the feelings of little neighbouring China. Well, that’s the impression an alien might have formed had it set up base in the Taiwan Strait and got its news from AP and Xinhua.
Under Ma, Taiwan would be the quiet little brother in the room, dutifully and carefully observing the wishes and feelings of big brothers China and USA, which would allow them to observe their games but not join them directly. Chen outright joined the game as an equal. Outraged, Beijing pressured the US to evict Taiwan from the court. Ma’s Taiwan would instead officially decline to join the game since only one China could register as a player, but it would seek to build relations with the referee’s association in respect to achieving unofficial participation later as a non-brother observer. Ma’s Taiwan would take no action to provoke Big Brother China or distract him whilst he was playing the game because at the end of the day a win for Big Brother China would be a win for Taiwan, being as their kinship was shared in blood and history and shared emperors and the like.
Except that, with a swift sentence, Ma’s Taiwan too has been tarred as a provocateur - proving that trying to please either the US or China is a fool’s errand and one that more readily serves only to abdicate Taiwan’s foreign policy than achieve a sense of regional peace.
This point of course was immediately lost of Taiwanese media, who were rather more occupied with feeling hurt and anger and making sure it was universally established who were the dastardly cold hearted perpetrators and who were the innocent, humble and honest victims:
She was asked to explain what actions Taiwan had taken that the US was concerned about when only one side — the Philippines — had actually done any shooting.
“When you’re warning both sides, you’re giving an equivalency. What is the Taiwanese action that you’re concerned about?” Psaki was asked.
“The Philippine government is looking into this case — I don’t want to get ahead of their process of investigating what happened,” she said.
At a regular daily press briefing, Psaki was again pressured to be more specific.
“The Taiwanese fisherman was unarmed. It’s a fishing boat — small compared to the government vessel that the Filipinos had. When you say confrontation, only one side was shooting the other, using a machine gun. Fifty-nine bullet holes were found in that small boat. I want you to comment on the fact that someone opened fire in the South China Sea,” a reporter said.
Psaki said that she was just making a broad point that both sides should refrain from provocative actions.
“I’m not going to speculate on this specific case,” she said.
“When you see people doing things that run directly counter to behavior that would lead to stability, are you going to stand up and point that out, and hold these governments to account? You’re holding the victimizer and the victim to equal account, so it doesn’t seem to match,” the reporter said.
Psaki replied: “There will be an investigation run by the Philippine government into what happened here. I don’t think that is holding both sides to the same account.”
Here’s my speculation - the US has been notified that there is video and it knows the location is well within Filipino waters and EEZ. The only reason it is not saying this outright is that it is waiting for the media and politicians in Taiwan to get bored and turn their attention elsewhere. It is exercising some diplomatic tact and timing. I think it highly unlikely that the US does not have some record somewhere (be it satellite data or images) of where the incident took place. Hence Psaki’s fudge about the exact location and waiting for the Filipino investigation is a stall tactic. The US may also want to see how Manila handles this and whether actual proof (e.g. video of the Taiwanese boat ramming the PCG) changes people’s opinons and deflates the hot air (as well as mean an end to side skirmishes such as the ongoing cyber-war).
In summary, a tragedy at sea has occurred. it is likely that at the root of this incident lie disputes over fishing rights, issues of poaching and also fish scarcity. Unfortunately, the Taiwanese Government is not able in this instance to sit down formally with the Filipino Government because of pressure from Beijing. There is then one less way (an agreement on fishing) such an incident can be prevented from happening again. Not only is Beijing not a peaceful regional stakeholder on a path of peaceful development, it’s One China policy is actively preventing Taiwan from addressing areas of economic conflict with its neighbours.