Nations and their governments

In an ideal world, how would the recent shooting by the Philippine Coast Guard of a Taiwanese fishing boat, which resulted in the killing of one of the fishermen, have been handled?  I think that both Filipino and Taiwanese authorities might have immediately sought one another to express grave concern over the incident, and to offer cooperation to ascertain the facts.  Both would have drawn assurance from the fact that, despite national differences, a legal order was in place and could be trusted to work.

Alas, this is not what happened.  Our diplomats were not fast enough in expressing official sympathies and pledging a thorough and impartial investigation.  Granted, the incident happened on May 9, just four days before the midterm elections.  But this is not an excuse.  On the other hand, the Taiwanese authorities were quick to arrive at their own conclusion based solely on the account of the fishing boat’s crew.  In strident language, the government demanded an official apology from no less than President Aquino, compensation for the family of the victim, and punishment for the erring Filipino soldier.  These demands came with an ultimatum and a threat of immediate sanctions.

The self-righteousness and the implicit hostility behind the Taiwanese government’s message do not jibe with the presumably friendly relations between the two countries. The act of suspending the hiring of Filipino workers bound for Taiwan as a way of penalizing the Philippine government’s perceived failure to properly and promptly apologize for the shooting is pure arrogance.  It treats workers as if they were dispensable commodities like bananas, rather than human beings with dignity. It puts the 87,000 Filipino workers already in Taiwan in a defensive position, setting them up as targets for harassment and racial violence. This is no different from the medieval practice of holding traveling merchants as ransom for debts left unpaid by their countrymen in a foreign country.

One expects individuals to sometimes act impulsively, out of anger. But not governments.  Unless they are trying to court approval from their own people by catering to the passions of the moment, governments are expected to be more circumspect and cautious in their statements and actions.  This is what separates governments run by statesmen from those led by demagogues.

Perhaps it is unfortunate that this incident has happened at a time when the popularity of Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou in his own country is at its lowest level. Having been reelected to a second term in January in a very tight race, the pro-Beijing leader has seen his approval ratings sag in just a few months.  The human rights record of his government has come under fire.  In March this year, the opulent wedding of his daughter attracted so much public attention that he was reported to have decided to skip it altogether.  Often, politicians in this position wrap themselves in the flag of their country in order to boost their image.

There is not much we can do in response to the official message emanating from Taipei other than to ignore the threatening tone in which it has been communicated.  We must stick to what is necessary for now, and that is, to quickly determine the facts in accordance with legal procedures, and to keep the communication lines with the Taiwan government open.  This is a complex situation, and we should avoid adding to its volatility.

The Coast Guard has filed a report essentially admitting the shooting and justifying it as an act of self-defense.  We cannot take this claim at face value.  The fishing boat in question did not appear to be armed.  The Coast Guard says that the Taiwanese boat tried to ram its vessel.  That doesn’t seem like the rational behavior of a foreign fishing crew that has been ordered to stop by a clearly armed patrol boat.  The report asserts that the soldiers fired at the boat in order to disable its engine, but that it managed to scamper away.  Is firing at a fleeing vessel in conformity with the rules of engagement applicable to such situations?

These and many other questions are begging to be answered.  They can only be answered after an exhaustive investigation.  The Taiwanese authorities understandably want to conduct their own investigation, and they have accordingly asked to interrogate our soldiers aboard the Coast Guard boat.  So long as they file an official request to this effect, we must extend to them the courtesy of our assistance.  In like manner, we expect the Taiwanese government to permit our investigators to inspect the fishing boat and speak to its crew. It is this kind of respectful reciprocity that sustains the cordial relations among nations.

Only after we get the facts right, based on mutually agreed legal procedures, can we proceed to assign blame and mete out penalties.  Remembering that the incident happened in disputed territorial waters, Taiwan and the Philippines might find it in their common interest to sit down later, like friendly neighbors, to work out a protocol governing events of this nature.

As human activity and communications become increasingly globalized, we all need to learn to shed the impulses based on identities that prevent us from seeing the human being in every fisherman, overseas worker, or foreign tourist or traveler who strays into our shores.  Governments have the duty to instill this kind of international and humanist consciousness in their people. That, coupled with the recognition that global society has recourse to a legal order even when it has no central mechanism to enforce decisions, is what it takes to avoid the destructive wars that previously pitted one country against another.