Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Philippines: Death of Taiwanese Fisherman Has Serious Repercussions for Manila

According to CNN, the shooting death of Taiwanese fisherman Hung Shih-cheng, 65, on May 9, in waters claimed by the exclusive economic zones of both countries, has produced strong reaction from the government of Taiwan, which is also known as the Republic of China.

Taipei's reaction to the death of of Hung Shih-cheng has been formidable. Taiwan recalled its diplomatic envoy from Manila, frozen applications from Filipinos seeking to work in Taiwan and held naval drills near Philippine waters.

Although the Philippine Coast Guard said the crew of one of its ships fired at the Taiwanese fishing boat on May 9 after it tried to ram a Philippine boat. Conversely, Taiwan insists that the Coast Guard vessel sprayed the fishing boat with bullets in waters claimed by the exclusive economic zones of both countries. 

The souring ties between the two countries are born out of the messy mix of competing territorial claims to parts of the South China Sea and nearby waters by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. The areas in dispute include fertile fishing grounds and potentially rich reserves of undersea natural resources.

President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan has characterized the death if its fisherman as "cold-blooded murder," according to the Taiwanese national news agency CNA.

Ma has so far deemed the Philippine response to the killing to be unsatisfactory. His government has demanded that Manila make a formal apology, compensate the losses, investigate and punish those responsible, and start talks between the two countries on a fishing agreement. Among the series of measures Taiwan has imposed include a travel alert urging its citizens not to visit to the Philippines.

President Benigno Aquino III also sent "a personal representative to extend his apology" and offer financial assistance to the family of the dead fisherman.  The government of the Philippines warned that the measures imposed by the Taiwanese government would hurt the economies of both countries.

The US, an ally of both the Philippines and Taiwan, has expressed regret" over the fisherman's death and urged the two sides "to work together and to ensure maritime safety, and refrain from actions that could further escalate tensions."

Tourist traffic from Taiwan slumped 46% in May and 70% in June, Philippine government statistics show. Last year, Taiwan was the Philippines' No. 4 source of tourism, and in the first five months of this year it contributed nearly 4% of foreign travel with 79,297 arrivals during that period.  

COMMENT: To make matters worse, Taiwans travel advisory has barred Taiwanese travel agents from promoting Philippine travel, effectively grounding all charter flights from Taiwan to an airport near prime Philippine vacation island, Boracay, as well as to Cebu, a tourist hub and the third largest city. That has left 8,000 seats unoccupied per month since the advisory took effect May 15.

Last year, 92,029 Taiwanese visited Boracay alone, 19% of foreign arrivals to the isle’s white sand, palm-festooned beaches.

Grounded charters in turn poisoned business for 50 travel agencies in Taiwan and eight more in the Philippines, according to stats from Manila’s side. About 30 hotels and resorts across the Philippines have reported cancellations of Taiwanese bookings. 

Taiwan’s travel advisory came with seven other economic sanctions, including a freeze on labor imports. Taiwan says it will lift all the sanctions if the Philippines apologizes more profusely for the fisherman’s shooting death, compensates the slain man’s family, brings the shooter to justice and starts fishery talks with the Taiwanese who are just 250 kilometers away. As a result of that distance, the two sides’ ocean claims overlap – a possible factor in the shooting.

In the meantime, Taipei is waiting for  Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to review an investigation report on the May 9 incident and his decision on the report's findings.

This report will be updated as new information becomes available.