ABOARD A TAIWANESE DESTROYER IN THE BASHI STRAIT – Taiwan's military on Thursday conducted exercises in waters between Taiwan and the Philippines, close to the spot where Filipino coast guard personnel opened fire on a Taiwanese fishing vessel last week, killing a 65-year-old-crew member.
Two Lafayette frigates, one Kidd-class destroyer, two missile boats and assorted Mirage and locally produced jet fighters took part in the drill, underscoring Taiwan's anger over the incident, which has dominated local media coverage for the past week.
It seems certain to benefit President Ma Ying-jeou, desperately in need of a public relations victory following a protracted economic slowdown that has helped depress his once buoyant approval rating to new lows that were in the mid-teens as of last week.
Ma is also likely to be aided by the seemingly inflexible attitude taken by his premier, who on Wednesday brushed aside an apology by Manila — the second in 24 hours — as insufficient and insincere. As a result, a series of Taiwanese sanctions imposed on the Philippines — a hiring freeze placed on Philippine workers coming to Taiwan, the recall of Taiwan's semi-official to Manila and the discouraging of Taiwanese travel to the Southeast Asian nation — will all remain in effect.
On Thursday, it was the Taiwanese military exercises in the Bashi Strait that captured most of the attention in Taiwan, with cable TV news stations offering full coverage of the sea and air maneuvers. Commentators drew repeated attention to the presence of heavily armed naval ships protecting the Taiwanese fishing boats working in the area — a reminder that Taiwan is prepared to do everything it can to discourage a reprise of last week's incident.
"Our naval drill is meant to flex our muscles and protect our sovereignty," gushed CTI TV, while ETTV added ominously: "Our Mirage fighters are heavily armed with missiles. Our naval crews are maneuvering on the very doorstep of the Philippines."
The circumstances behind the May 9 shooting remain shrouded in controversy. While the Philippines acknowledges that its coast guard personnel did open fire on the Taiwanese boat, it says the action was taken in self-defense to prevent the Taiwanese from ramming their own vessel. Taiwanese fishermen deny the ramming claim.
The Philippines has opened an inquiry into the affair. Fourteen Taiwanese police investigators arrived in Manila on Thursday to take part in the inquiry.
The incident took place in waters southeast of Taiwan and north of the Philippines in a location is considered by both to be well within their 200 nautical mile-from-shore exclusive economic zones.
The continuing tensions between Taipei and Manila has placed the United States into something of a bind, with the State Department on Wednesday saying it was concerned by the increase in tensions "between two neighboring democracies and close partners of the United States." It welcomed the Philippines' pledge to investigate the shooting and cooperate with Taiwanese investigators, and urged both parties to avoid further escalation in tensions.
"We want them to work through their differences on this issue as expeditiously as they can," spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters.
China is also closely monitoring the upsurge in tensions between Taiwan and the Philippines, doing its best to make common cause with Taipei on a sensitive issue of maritime sovereignty.
Beijing sees the affair as a good opportunity to emphasize its claims over the island, from which it split amid civil war in 1949. Taiwan has so far resisted China's efforts to mount a joint front against Manila.
On Wednesday, the spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council in Beijing repeated the mainland's condemnation of the Philippines' handling of the incident.
"It is the shared responsibility of both the mainland and Taiwan to safeguard the interests of compatriots across the strait," Yang Yi said. "We have urged the Philippines to investigate the incident, punish the murderer and give a satisfactory explanation to the victims."
Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report from Manila, Philippines.