In a region dominated by the emerging military power of China and now shaped by the revival of Japanese nationalism under new prime minister Shinzo Abe, Taiwan has emerged as a diplomatic power of regional significance – thanks not to aggression or even the threat of it, but rather thanks to a determination to eschew aggression, even when provoked, in the name of regional stability.
The provocation in question was an unwarranted and ferocious attack on a Taiwanese fishing boat by a Filipino coastguard vessel. A 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman was sprayed with bullets by the government vessel – whose crew allegedly laughed as they fired – in part of the South China Sea where both countries’ maritime claims overlap.
Tension is nothing new in the South China Sea, but the attack was as shocking as it was out of character for the Philippines, which generally enjoys peaceful relations with other states in the region.
But almost as surprising was the Taiwanese response. What could have rapidly escalated into a naval conflict between the two countries was swiftly turned into a diplomatic battle by Taipei, which, despite public anger, was determined to pursue justice rather than vengeance.
Taiwan’s response to the death of its citizen was certainly brisk and business-like. The Taiwanese military conducted exercises close to Filipino waters, in an apparent show of strength. The government froze work permit approvals for Filipino immigrants. Taipei also rejected an initial apology by the Filipino government, calling it insincere.
However, Ma Ying-jeou, now a year into his second term as Taiwanese president, was also careful to ensure that his response was as proportionate as the coastguard’s action was disproportionate. He immediately reassured the island’s 87,000 Filipino residents, many of whom work in the critical IT sector, that they were safe and welcome in Taiwan.
Ma, a Harvard lawyer by training, also insisted that the situation should be remedied according to the law: he called for compensation to be paid to the dead man’s family and insisted on a joint criminal investigation, but he also demanded that the incident be judged according to international marine law, and he proposed a Taiwan-Philippines fisheries treaty as a positive legacy of the incident.
Ma is specialised in maritime law, and he wrote his doctoral thesis on a territorial dispute in the East China Sea over islands claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan. In that dispute, too, Taiwan’s cool-headed approach has paid dividends, even while China and Japan ramp up the bellicose rhetoric over the island’s sovereignty.
Ma’s proposal of a peace initiative based on dialogue and shared sovereignty may yet prove to be a model for a volatile region – and one that could be transplanted to other potentials conflict zones in Asia.
Taiwan’s diplomacy on his watch, which has been characterised by rapprochement with China, has also won plaudits, both before and after this latest test of friendship.
In a turbulent region experiencing complex and fascinating shifts of power dynamics, Taiwan’s robust but measured diplomatic response has provided a refreshing vision of how future disputes can be resolved.