Taiwan's Pragmatic Strategy in Maritime Disputes
In an effort to conclude the diplomatic row that kicked off with the May 9 killing of a Taiwanese fisherman by a Philippine coast guard vessel, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III on May 21 said he was open to discussing a proposal by Taiwan to share fishing zones in disputed waters. If agreed on, the proposal would satisfy multiple ends at once. On the one hand, it could provide an avenue for Taiwan to gain concrete material benefits from the row without relying on Beijing to step in. At the same time, it would bolster ongoing efforts by other regional players like Japan to keep a wedge between China and Taiwan in the arena of East Asia maritime disputes.
Aquino's comment on the shared fishing zone proposal coincided with his announcement of a $1.8 billion military modernization program to equip the Philippines to defend its maritime claims against what he called bullies in a thinly veiled jab at China. It also follows on Taipei's move to conduct military exercises in disputed waters starting May 16. At one point, the Taiwanese fleet — which included one destroyer, a frigate and four coast guard ships — came within 34 kilometers (21 miles) of the island of Batan.
Any actual agreement between Taiwan and the Philippines to share fisheries is likely a long way off. A similar pact between Taiwan and Japan was debated for 17 years before being signed in April 2013 and then only took shape as maritime tensions between China and Japan reached a fever pitch. And Aquino reiterated that any talk of a fishing pact would only come after the two countries reached closure on the May 9 fishing incident.
Nonetheless, the Philippines' gesture is an important boost to Taiwan, which has long struggled to gain recognition in regional maritime negotiations owing to the fact that by most international measures it is not actually a nation-state. Taiwan's bleak position was brought into sharp relief during Taipei's prolonged efforts to reach a fishing pact with Japan, which until recently saw little need to offer any concessions to the small island nation. But as China's presence in the South and East China seas grows, other regional players like Japan and the Philippines are now reconsidering the strategic value of maintaining positive ties with Taiwan — or rather, preventing Taiwan from falling under the diplomatic wing of Beijing. For Taiwan, a fishing pact achieves a tangible economic goal while steering clear of a prolonged debate over sovereignty.
Taiwan's uncertain international status amid intensifying maritime disputes helps explain the Taiwanese public's unusually strong response to the ongoing maritime row. Public anger over what was perceived as a slight by the Philippines — a country with inferior military capabilities and a gross domestic product half the size of Taiwan's — tapped into underlying social anxieties about Taiwan's place amid increasingly complex and intense regional maritime disputes, and especially Taipei's uneasy relationship with its largest trading partner, China.
A concrete fishing pact between Taiwan and the Philippines will not be realized in the near future. But the acknowledgement alone is a minor victory for Taipei, as it struggles to maintain some distance from Beijing.