Tensions in the South China Sea have come to the surface in the wake of the shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman. Philippino authorities shot dead the skipper in an area it claims is its Exclusive Economic Area durring what it says was a routine procedure to curb illegal fishing in its waters. Taiwanese authorities claim the shooting was in disputed waters where no bilateral fishing agreement has been reached.
Philippino authorities have promised a full and transparent investigation into the incident but have stopped short of issuing an apology. A spokesman for the Phillippino coastguard said "If somebody died, they deserve our sympathy but not an apology." The Coastguard claims they were doing their duty in protecting itself against illegal fishing. After initially denying the death, authorities confirmed the death the day after it occurred. The Coastguard stated the fishing boat rammed their vessel after being caught fishing illegally and was fired upon. Taiwan countered this by issuing allegations the fishing boat was pursued for over an hour after the attack and that other fishing boats in the area were not targeted.
The Taiwanese President has spoken clearly on the matter in an attempt to escalate it, even threatening sanctions against the Philippines. "We will definitely seek justice for our fisherman. We will not rule out the possibility of taking any kind of sanctions," he said before adding further provocation by calling the attack brutal and cold-blooded. Many analysts believe an investigation is unlikely to yield much. There have been previous attacks in the South China Sea. In May 2000 and January 2006 Chinese fishing boats were attacked and skippers killed by gunfire. Fishing ships are often detained and last year Chinese maritime vessels took control of a disputed shoal. The Phillippines angered China this year when they requested United Nations arbitration on the matter. China declined the opportunity to talk, setting up further conflicts.
The South China Sea is disputed by more than just these two however. It is an important fishing ground and is disputed by several countries. China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have claims to parts of the sea and many of the claims are overlapping. Many of the islands are held by troops of the various countries and recently the Indian Ambassador to Vietnam expressed his concern at the rising tensions in the area. Fifty percent of its trade passes through the South China Sea. The area is also an important area for fishing and strategically holds an important economic role for all countries. The role of oil exploration has increased the importance of the area. Despite agreements being reached in 2011 regarding preliminary guidelines that could lead to a resolution, the issue of oil and natural gas drilling is still an obstacle.
China has weighed in on the issue calling the shooting barbaric. The communist controlled newspaper Global Times called on its government to increase its naval presence in the region. The US declined to comment until the investigation is complete. Regardless of the outcome, it is likely more tragedies will occur if all interested parties continue to argue.