Delicate diplomacy

Deadly spat between the Philippines and Taiwan is a big headache for the US

May 20, 2013
May 20, 2013

A contentious territorial dispute between Taiwan and the Philippines is having nasty repercussions–and the US is caught in the middle.

The trouble started earlier this month during a confrontation between the Philippine coast guard and a Taiwanese fishing boat in disputed waters. Although the circumstances are disputed, the incident culminated in the Philippines vessel opening fire, killing a Taiwanese fisherman. In the furore that followed,  Taiwan’s government refused to accept the Philippines’ apology, imposed a series of sanctions that included hiring restrictions on the 85,000 Filipino workers in Taiwan, and threatened to hold military drills in the South China Sea.

Territorial disputes in Asian seas are common, and—as in the feud between Japan and China over the Senkaku /Diaoyu islands—increasingly contentious. But the conflict between Taiwan and the Philippines presents a particular diplomatic challenge to the United States, which has mutual defense treaties with both countries.

Speaking on Wednesday last week, US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said: “we are concerned by the increase in tensions between two neighboring democracies and close partners of the United States … we urge the Philippines and Taiwan to take all appropriate measures to clarify disagreements and prevent recurrence of such tragic events.”

Who does the US government believe to actually be at fault? The State Department would prefer not to say.

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