Why Taiwan refused Philippines' apology for slain fisherman as insincere

Taiwan recalled its top diplomat in Manila and announced that it was no longer accepting applications for Filipino workers, after the Philippine Coast Guard killed a fisherman last week.

Wally Santana/AP
Commander Huang I-che watches ships from the deck of a Taiwanese Kidd-class destroyer during exercises off of the southern city of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Wednesday. The Philippine President Benigno Aquino III on Wednesday apologized to Taiwan for the fatal shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman by Philippine coast guard personnel, after Taiwan rejected an earlier Philippine apology and started retaliating diplomatically.

The Philippines offered a high-level apology Wednesday in an attempt to salvage relations with Taiwan after its coast guard killed a fisherman, but Taipei rejected the bid and announced a series of economic sanctions including suspension of economically critical migrant labor.

Philippine media said President Benigno Aquino III had expressed “deep regret” over the shooting on Thursday, according to local media and Taiwanese officials. But Taiwan rejected the apology as lacking sincerity. 

Taiwan followed up by announcing Wednesday that it would suspend economic dialogue with the Philippines and recommend citizens avoid traveling there. Earlier in the day it had suspended migrant labor and recalled its top diplomat in Manila.

“This statement is one that we totally cannot accept,” Taiwan Premier Jiang Yi-huah told a news conference in Taipei after the apology was offered. “The Philippines apologized on one hand but on the other emphasized that it wasn’t an intentional act.”

Continued tension with the Philippines, which is just 250 kilometers (160 miles) to the south, could weaken one link in a loose alliance of US Pacific Rim allies that includes Taipei, Manila, Seoul, and Tokyo.

In the short term, Manila had particularly hoped to sustain migrant labor, which now keeps 88,000 Filipinos employed in Taiwan and contributes to remittances that made up 9 percent of the Philippine economy in 2011, political analysts say.

Taiwanese factory owners have returned to Taiwan over the past few years from cheaper China to take advantage of low-paid Filipino workers.

The Philippines also looks to Taiwan for its emerging income source, tourism, as mega-casinos begin opening in Manila. Two-way trade was worth nearly $11 billion last year, making the Philippines Taiwan’s No. 12 trading partner.

“The No. 1 purpose for them is to define the case as an incident and not hurt bilateral relations in general,” says Alexander Huang, professor of strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

Taiwan had pressed for an apology since the 65-year-old man was shot Thursday on a boat in the overlapping waters of the Luzon Strait, a body of water between the two sides.

But Philippine President Aquino, considered strong on foreign policy, also did not want to appear weak at home, especially as his coalition ran for 241 open parliament seats earlier in the week – winning most of them. Some say too strong of an apology would be read as conceding part of the Luzon Strait to Taiwan.

Mr. Aquino’s Taiwan counterpart Ma Ying-jeou also wants to be seen as stronger on foreign policy as critics at home say he has let the island grow too dependent economically on political rival China although China still curbs Taiwanese diplomacy. Taiwan wants international respect and political mileage for foreign policy achievements.

Last month Mr. Ma’s government pushed Japan after 17 years to sign an agreement allowing Taiwanese fishing boats to trawl in 4,530 square kilometers of contested East China Sea waters controlled by Tokyo. Before that, his approval ratings had sunk to 13 percent, a local television network found.

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