While the nation was caught up in election fever these past weeks, another incident occurred involving the Philippines and one of its neighbors. News reports reveal that a 65-year old Taiwanese fisherman was killed in an altercation with the Philippine Coast Guard in the Balintang Channel off Batanes last May 9.
Taiwan was quick to express outrage over the incident, with President Ma Ying-jeou demanding an apology from the Philippine Government while issuing an ultimatum threatening economic sanctions that will directly affect 80,000 Overseas Filipino Workers. Last Monday, the ultimatum lapsed and the top Philippine envoy in Taiwan returned to the country. Taiwan then proceeded with a freeze on hiring Filipino workers.
Tension between the Philippines and Taiwan isn’t new, since both also have competing territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea. Strangely, this incident happened not in disputed waters (contrary to claims made by the international media), but in the Balintang Channel: a body of water between the Batanes Group of Islands and the Babuyan Islands that are well within Philippine territory.
The ongoing row between the two island nations brings up a few relevant questions regarding: 1) The political status of Taiwan on the international stage, and 2) the effect of our OFW policy on our country’s international stature.
A Lonely Island
There are two governments competing for sovereignty over the Chinese nation. One is the People’s Republic of China based in Beijing and the other is the Republic of China based in Taiwan. From 1945 to 1971, Chang Kai-shek’s government in Taiwan was the internationally recognized government despite not having de facto control over Mainland China (which was under Mao Zedong’s leadership.) In 1971 recognition shifted from Taipei to Beijing, leaving the status of Taiwan under dispute. Beijing claims Taiwan is a mere province of China while Taipei asserts its own independence while its claim on the mainland stagnates.
Despite this major change, Taiwan is able to maintain separate diplomatic relationships with other nations and, with it, separate territorial disputes even with the mainland. This is in part due to the Taiwanese economic miracle, and the unfailing support of the United States.
In recent years however, the diplomatic bargaining power of Taiwan continues to wane because of the meteoric rise of its bigger brother not only in economic strength but also in military capability. Other major powers, in fear of China’s wrath, somehow cooled their ties with the island. Thus it is not surprising that Taiwan is easy to floor the pedal on incendiary rhetoric regarding the present issue.
To fully understand Taiwan’s recent behavior, we look to how countries behave in general. In a neorealist conception of international relations, the bare minimum that each State aims for is survival. The primary interest of the State is to secure itself and thus is constantly on guard against changes in terms of relative power between it and other States. Taiwan, already handicapped by its own status, finds itself in a constant security dilemma with its neighbors, especially now that the rest of the region is moving forward on major territorial rows (e.g. the Spratlys, the Senkakus, etc.) without it. The logical consequence then for Taiwan is to arm itself, intervene with other nations, or something like what is happening now: aggressive posturing.
The OFW policy in Turbulent Waters
There is no doubt that the Philippine economy is now reliant on labor export. However, the country’s OFW policy has spawned very unsavory consequences that undermine the country’s diplomatic stature.
In a neorealist world, all countries are more or less the same in their needs but have major differences in their capability to satisfy these needs and achieve their interests. The security dilemma that results from these differences in capabilities forces countries to one up each other in terms of relative strength; and in so far as relative strength is concerned, the Philippines is losing – in part due to the OFW policy.
In the present row with Taiwan, the Philippines definitely has advantages in certain areas. Taiwan, though militarily capable, has very limited options due to its diplomatic status. Taiwan, however, has a powerful bargaining chip in the form of economic sanctions: eight inter-ministerial sanctions at that. The Aquino administration is then caught between a rock and a hard place: should it stand its ground and refuse to apologize for a justified action, or risk the economic relations between Taiwan and the Philippines and the danger of other retaliatory measures like discrimination or violence against the sizeable Filipino community living there? There is also the consequence gaining the ire of OFW dependents in the Philippines; and it’s obvious that the Aquino administration can only stand so much diplomatic guff after Quirino Grandstand, Scarborough and Sabah. There is also 2016 to think about, especially with the Vice President perceived to be more hands on with diplomatic issues.
The sad reality is that the Philippine diplomatic corps has been reduced from being the international trailblazers of the 50’s and 60’s to mere OFW babysitters. The country can no longer work for its own interests without risking the individual lives and livelihoods of millions of workers abroad. What we gain economically, we lose diplomatically; and other countries are not at all afraid to use the OFW card against us (case in point: Sabah) to our embarrassment.
Fishing for Answers
As of this writing, President Aquino has sent his top envoy to Taiwan to relay his apologies to the Taiwanese government. Taipei rejected his apology for being “insincere” and proceeded with its economic sanctions until the members of the Philippine Coast Guard involved in the incident are prosecuted and the dead fisherman’s family members given compensation.
Unfortunately, the solutions to our back-to-back diplomatic stumbling blocks are not short-term. The country’s dependence on labor export will continue to send more and more Filipinos to different parts of the world, including those with disputes with the Philippines. Weaning our country from this dependence will mean that the government needs to make long-term incentives for Filipinos to stay in the country, as well as reducing unemployment at home. At the same time, as the number of Filipino workers increases, other countries gain a significant advantage when they try to push for their own agenda at our expense. Simply put, as long as our countrymen continue to break their backs abroad for our hunger for foreign remittances, other countries will continue to use them in order to push us around. It’s simply a case of we need them more than they need us, but the effect of preventing the arrival of Philippine labor in Taiwan is yet to be explored.
Meanwhile the ball is back in the Aquino administration’s court. Should they stand by their principles or continue this diplomacy of appeasement? It’s a precarious balancing act, but when we start to get pushed around by a country that’s not even internationally recognized as a state, then we as a nation need to do a lot of introspection.
About the author
Michael Trance Nuñez is a student of history and law who is also a self-proclaimed evil genius. He spends his free time surfing the internet, reading, and raising Pokemon. He plans to specialize in Diplomatic History and International law so he can finally realize his dreams of world domination.