- - Thursday, May 23, 2013

The May 9 fatal shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman by the Philippine coast guard set off an inadvertent naval competition between Taiwan and China.

The incident occurred in the disputed Bashi Strait between Taiwan and the Philippines, and Taiwan and China each sent a large number of vessels to waters near the Philippines to demonstrate armed hostility. The Philippines is a key disputant over many islands in the South China Sea that are claimed by the Philippines, China and Taiwan — itself an island claimed by China.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, whose approval rating has reached a historic low, responded to the fisherman’s death with an all-out wave of anti-Philippine measures. Taipei gave Manila a 72-hour ultimatum to apologize or be hit with tough sanctions, including a hiring freeze of the estimated 87,000 Philippine workers and maids in Taiwan.

Manila apologized to Taipei through its diplomatic representative in Taiwan, but the Ma government called the apology insincere and said it should have been issued directly from Manila’s central government. Taipei recalled its de facto ambassador in Manila and dispatched a fact-finding team to the Philippines that Taipei later said was snubbed.

What took the international community by surprise was Taipei’s May 12 announcement that it would hold a large joint naval and air exercise off the coast of the Philippine island of Batan. Taipei said the May 16 exercises were aimed solely at “sending the Philippines a message.”

The joint exercises involved the largest flotilla of naval vessels Taiwan had assembled in recent memory outside its own waters, including its largest capital ship — the Kidd-class destroyer Ma Kong. Other key warships took part as well, including the La Fayette-class frigate Chen De and several Kuang Hua-class fast-attack missile boats.

Taiwan’s air force dispatched Grumman E-2 Hawkeye airborne early-warning and control planes for the show of force. Shore-based Taiwanese Mirage 2000 fighter jets also flew during the exercises.

Not to be outdone, China’s navy also sought “to teach the Philippines a lesson” and took action coinciding with Taiwan’s naval operations.

While the Taiwanese flotilla was on its way to the exercise area near the Philippines, the Chinese navy announced it would hold a “faraway ocean exercise.” The navy then redirected a flotilla of its East Sea Fleet, which had been conducting provocative training maneuvers near Okinawa, to waters near the Taiwanese exercise area close to the Philippines.

China’s South Sea Fleet, one of the navy’s three fleets that has special command coverage over the South China Sea, already was conducting sea exercises in the South China Sea and moved its vessels to the exercise site mere hours after Taiwan’s announcement.

In the end, more than a dozen warships belonging to China’s two fleets converged on waters near the Philippines where Taiwan was conducting drills. But there were no joint actions between the Taiwanese and Chinese vessels.

Meanwhile, Manila refused to issue another apology to Taiwan, citing the so-called “One China policy.” That policy says there is only one China, and Taiwan, in Beijing’s view, is part of China. Any official dealings with the communist government are predicated on the policy.

Facing Taipei’s military hostility, Manila adroitly played the “One China” card to remind Taipei of its own degraded international status, saying in effect that if Manila must apologize to anyone, it would apologize to Beijing, not Taipei.

Meanwhile, China’s propaganda machine went into high gear against the Philippines for the fatal shooting of a “Chinese compatriot” from Taiwan. Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan stated in the People’s Daily newspaper and other main outlets that if the Philippines continues to misbehave, China would immediately launch attacks on all eight of the Philippine-held islands in the South China Sea until they are all taken back.

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at [email protected] and @yu_miles.

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