Take Taiwan for what it is

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Site of incidentIT is difficult to develop a pattern of action for the incident in Balintang Chanel which happened a month ago. We know what Taiwan wants but we are still at sea on how we have responded and/ or how we will further respond.

Taiwan is a province (read: surrogate) of China. It is also an ally (read: vassal) of the United Sates and has the support of the powerful China lobby in Washington. The media carry reports of statements of US House members supporting Taiwan.

The Philippines has substantial trade and investment relations with the “system” and thousands of Filipinos work in the island. This arrangement redounds to the mutual benefits of both and is governed by our so-called One-China policy.

This policy has not been clearly defined. In practice, what happened are rules against top leaders of the Philippines – President, Vice President, Senate President, House Speaker, Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Secretary of National Defense – visiting Taiwan and top Taiwanese leaders not granted permission to visit or transit the Philippines. Other “diplomatic” contacts are also proscribed.

There is need to examine this One- China policy in the light of actions and words of Taiwan over the Balintang Channel incident and by China in the West Philippine Sea. This “strategy” limits our actions and options to act for our national interests amidst shifting geopolitical developments in the region.

The parallel investigations by the Philippine and Taiwanese teams may not result in definitive conclusions. The priority for both sides is not to exacerbate further the already tense standoff.

The Philippines must seize control of the situation and prevent further erosion of our respect and credibility in the international community. If the incident is an act of self-defense in our territorial waters or even in our exclusive economic zone, the Philippines was exercising hot pursuit, a doctrine recognized and accepted in international law.

Article III of UNCLOS grants the coastal state the right to pursue and arrest ships escaping to international waters as long as: 1) the pursuers are competent authorities of the state; 2) they have good reasons to believe that the pursued ships has violated the state’s laws or regulations; 3) the pursuit begins while in the state’s international waters or territorial waters; 4) the pursuit is continuous. If the foreign ship is within the contiguous zone, the EEZ, the continental shelf, then the pursuit may only be undertaken if there has been a violation of the rules and regulations, e.g. customs, fiscal, immigration, or sanitary rules and regulations of the coastal state.

The right is particularly relevant to fisheries management, maritime pollution laws, and seaborne illegal trade. Hot pursuit might cease as soon as the ship pursued enters the territorial waters of its own state or of a third state.

It is reasonable to assume that Taiwan is taking advantage of the situation and using it as a means to upgrade political relations with the Philippines and goad us to enter into fishery talks. In the meantime, our nationals in Taiwan and our foreign policy are held hostage pending resolution of the issue.

The challenge for Philippine diplomacy is to craft a clear and coherent policy and approach the problem in the context of what Taiwan is and what it covets.

(The author is a veteran Philippine diplomat. He was the Philippine Permament Representative to the United Nations (May 2003- Feb.2007). Prior to that, he was Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Policy.)