Gelzon de la Cruz

Death of a Fisherman

In Society on May 19, 2013 at 3:24 am

DOING IT THE HARD WAY–Taiwan’s response to the May 9 incident shows it finding ways to use the death of a fisherman to acquire fishing rights in Philippine waters.  With economic sanctions that have led to harassment of OFWs, and a military exercise that showcases its superior arms, Taiwan is pushing for a fishery agreement that would conveniently upstage the maritime incident. The Philippines has not taken the bait, focusing first on a thorough investigation of the fatal incident, and taking the time to examine the UNCLOS convention that Taiwan invokes but has never ratified.


Currently being investigated for the possible conviction–or exoneration–of the crew of Philippine Coast Guard vessel MCS 3001, the May 9 incident that led to the death of 65 year old Taiwanese fisherman Hong Shih-Cheng occurred at coordinates 20.12°N, 123.03°E in waters east of Basco, Batanes.  Taiwan refers to the location as being within an area where its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) overlaps with that of the Philippines, and has made the incident cause for demanding that the two countries strike up a fishery agreement.

Events have developed quickly since May 9.  Taiwan swiftly imposed sanctions that ban any further hiring of overseas Filipino workers.  And, though subsequent reports of widespread harassment of Filipinos in Taiwan prompted the Taiwanese government to officially remind its citizens that Filipino workers are not to blame for the slaying of the fisherman, the sanctions had the undeniable effect of making all Filipinos appear to bear responsibility for the death of Hong Shih-Cheng.  This, while overt threats came in the form of a retaliatory military exercise in which Taiwan sortied its US-made destroyer, French-made frigate and French Mirage fighter-bombers on and above waters abutting its maritime borders with the Philippines.

Taiwan’s demonstrations of economic and military power serve to push the Philippines into moving forward with a negotiated fishery agreement, but merely as a reactionary move that sidesteps the incident and pushes it into the news cycle’s background. Despite these pressures from Taiwan, after having first expressed deep regret for the tragedy, the Philippines has remained focused on the May 9 incident itself and on a thorough investigation of the events that led to the death of Hong Shih-Cheng.

The Philippine response has been appropriate since two issues should first be examined before accepting Taiwan’s premise for a new fishery agreement:  First is the assertion of overlapping EEZs.  The UNCLOS convention specifies that in the event of EEZ overlap, it is up to the states to determine the actual boundaries.  If there is no agreement to this effect, any point within an overlap area defaults to the nearest state.  The incident location is just 58 miles East-Southeast of Basco, Batanes.  In contrast, it is 131 miles South-Southeast of Taiwan’s Lanyu Island and even 150 miles Southeast of Long Keng on the southernmost tip of Taiwan’s mainland.  And, the shortest distance between the incident location and the closest points on Taiwan runs through and presumes passage through the Philippines’ territorial sea.  Without any agreement pertaining to the area, such as the fishery agreement that Taiwan is demanding, the location of the May 9 incident defaults to the Philippine EEZ and is rightly patrolled by vessels of the country’s coast guard.

The second issue to be examined is Taiwan’s reference to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to claim an EEZ that overlaps with that of the Philippines.  Philippine ratification of the UNCLOS was confirmed in 1984.  On the other hand, being a state with limited recognition with the UN, Taiwan has not been qualified to ratify the convention.  Though this should not exclude Taiwan from affirming the principles of UNCLOS, it also has not compelled it to declare exactly how it accepts the provisions of the convention.  For instance, it has not declared how it might view the convention’s treatment of overlapping EEZs.

Any negotiation for sharing fishery rights with Taiwan should come after deliberate consideration of these two issues about overlapping EEZs and about the extent of Taiwan’s acceptance of the UNCLOS convention that prescribes such zones.  Consideration of these issues, and the negotiation they might allow, are best kept separate from the pursuit of justice for a fisherman’s death.  And all these are best done without the obstructive intimidation of Filipinos overseas and at home in their own country.


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