TAIPEI— The Philippines' rejection of charges that its coast guard intentionally shot a Taiwanese fisherman to death in overlapping waters has enraged Taiwan and severely strained ties between two normally friendly Pacific Rim democracies. But both sides are hinting this week at a joint investigation that could repair relations.
The shooting of a 65-year-old fisherman aboard his boat on May 9 has created a public furor in his homeland, Taiwan, prompting calls for a full-blown apology and compensation. Taiwan said the act was intentional, but the Philippines has said much less.
Manila’s response comes as a setback for Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou as he tries to raise approval ratings of around 20 percent.
But Taipei said this week it has made progress on its call for a joint investigation into the Luzon Strait shooting. On Tuesday, the two sides held working-level meetings and decided to offer mutual legal aid. Taiwan’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Anna Kao said the development shows that both sides are working in the same spirit.
Kao said that, basically, in doing a joint investigation in spirit, the Philippines will respect each side’s legal rights to the area of ocean. She said that later both sides will make joint checks, make comparisons and hold discussions, so basically the spirit on both sides is the same.
Manila had declined to work together after Taiwan took 11 countermeasures against it last week, including a freeze on Philippine migrant labor. About 88,000 Filipinos in Taiwan would be forced to leave once current contracts end. The flap has enraged people on both sides, making migrants feel physically threatened. It also tears at part of an American-led Asia-Pacific alliance that also includes Japan and South Korea.
Some political strategists said the Philippines may have fallen short of Taiwan’s demands to avoid statements that could be read as conceding the disputed waters where the man was shot. Ocean economic zones claimed by each side overlap in the 250-kilometer-wide Luzon Strait.
A joint investigation into the incident that Taiwan said left 59 bullet holes in the fishing boat could be a start toward eventual conciliation. Alex Chiang, an associate professor of international politics at National Cheng Chi University in Taipei, said the worst is already over.
“I don’t think the Filipino president will back up a lot, but I think he will do it gradually," said Chiang. "First, I think both sides will have to agree on the investigation outcome. They both have to agree on what has happened. That’s first and foremost. Once they agree about the incident, I think it will be easy for both sides to settle the issue.”
Taiwan’s foreign ministry said it ultimately plans to send a team to the Philippines to question witnesses and examine evidence. Manila has said it would return the visit to meet witnesses and look at the fishing boat shot by its coast guard.