A Manila-Taipei agreement could yield benefits beyond fisheries

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THE Philippines has much to gain from signing a fisheries agreement with Taiwan, and we hope that the Palace delays it no further.

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The need for an agreement resurfaced after the recent standoff between the Philippine Coast Guard and its Taiwanese counterpart. Actually, Taiwan had hoped that the Philippines would sign the pact within the first quarter of 2015, before the fishing season started in April. The rainy season has been forecast to start in the second or third week of June, but with last week’s downpour, it may have already started.

Manila and Taipei have been negotiating a maritime law enforcement cooperation since May 2013, after the Philippine coast guard shot at a Taiwanese fishing boat and killed one of its crew. The Philippines claimed the boat entered our territorial waters, but that was disputed by Taiwan. The problem is that the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines and Taiwan overlap, and in open sea, boundary lines are difficult to ascertain. In any case, the killing sparked a public outrage in Taiwan, which temporarily banned Filipino workers. There were calls for measures that would prevent a similar incident from happening again, and the subsequent meetings to repair bilateral relations led to the crafting of the Fisheries Facilitation Agreement.

“Manila and Taipei have been negotiating a maritime law enforcement cooperation since May 2013, after the Philippine coast guard shot at a Taiwanese fishing boat and killed one of its crew. “

Without tackling boundary delineation, the agreement offers three key provisions. First, it prohibits the use of force when patrolling fishing grounds. Second, a mechanism for informing both sides of an incursion would be created. And last, fishermen detained on either side would be released immediately, along with their seized boats.

As innocuous as the provisions may sound, some people on our side are still wary. They see the Philippines at a disadvantage because its fishing fleet is less developed than that of the Taiwanese. And because the Philippines is less capable of patrolling our seas, they fear that more Taiwanese ships will fish around our northernmost islands. According to an article posted on the East Asia Forum website, the losses to fish poaching in the northern Philippines range from P75 million to P150 million.

Benefits beyond fisheries
While such concerns should not be quickly dismissed, we still think that the Philippines has more to gain from signing the fisheries agreement. For one, joint patrols should complement our coast guard’s capabilities. Taiwan could help keep Taiwanese boats within their waters, the same way that the Philippine Coast Guard could help curb Filipino fishermen from going too far. It would be inconsistent with the idea of cooperation to think of coast guards as escorts in contested waters. And even with our limitations, the Philippines arrested 108 foreign nationals for illegal fishing between 2006 and 2012, according to the East Asia Forum.

Furthermore, signing the pact would have benefits beyond maritime concerns. For instance, it would help repair the image of the Philippines in Taiwan, our closest neighbor. A better image contributes not only to tourist arrivals from Taiwan, perhaps even to attracting more investors from there.

More importantly, it improves people-to-people relations. Incidentally, Taipei and several Taiwanese foundations were major contributors to Filipinos affected by Typhoon Yolanda.

Lastly, warmer relations with Taiwan benefit Filipino overseas workers, estimated to be more than 88,000. They were not only squeezed economically when Taiwan froze hiring in 2013, but they also feared retribution for the murder of that Taiwanese fisherman. Fortunately, those fears did not materialize.

Overall, the benefits of friendship and cooperation outweigh the disadvantages. Clearly, this applies to our maritime relations with our closest northern neighbor.

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