By Lucia Pivetta
Another fishing incident has recently sparked friction in the seas off China’s coast, this time in the South China Sea, drawing attention to the volatility and militarisation of the region. On 15 May, the island of Taiwan, which is claimed by China, imposed sanctions on the Philippines. This occurred when the Philippines failed to issue a prompt official apology after its coast guard killed a Taiwanese fisherman in the disputed waters of the Bashi Channel north of the Philippines on 9 May. Taipei followed the sanctions by conducting military drills in the tense Bashi Channel.
The measures taken by the government of Taipei include 11 types of sanctions. One such measure has effectively barred Philippine migrant workers from entering Taiwan. The estimated 88,000 Philippines already working in Taiwan will have to leave once their contracts end. Taiwan has also recalled its top envoy to the Philippines and fishing and aviation cooperation has been suspended.
The conflict partly stems from the fact that, as the Philippines does not recognise Taiwan, the two counterparts have never negotiated their sea borders. Another issue is that their exclusive economic zones (EEZ) overlap. This is not the first clash between the two unlikely rivals. “Experts say underlying these clashes is long-time resentment in the Philippines over Taiwan’s bigger and more sophisticated fishing industry, which is able to tap the marine resources near the Philippines in ways its fishermen cannot,” BBC correspondent Cindy Sui reports.
The situation is further complicated by regional alliances – both Taiwan and the Philippines are traditional allies of the United States but the Philippines also has close relations with China. The recent case in the Bashi Channel, however, shows that countries in the South China Sea often put aside regional alliances and stability to prioritise their short-term national interests, exacerbating relations in this contentious area of the world.
Consequently, unilateral action is a common, and civilian actors often play a part in the conflict. The high traffic of civilian boats and commercial ships in disputed waters increases the risk of altercation and boosts nationalism, but it also deteriorates long-term strategic priorities and partnerships. Philippine President Benigno Aquino warned in 2011 that rising tensions may lead to a regional arms race. The Taiwanese drills now taking place in the Bashi Channel as a result of the row seem to augur for the same.