Philippines Urges Calm as Taiwan Deadline Over Sea Death Nears

Philippine President Benigno Aquino sought to avoid damaging ties with Taiwan before a midnight deadline for his administration to apologize for the killing of a fisherman on May 9.

“We certainly would like to avoid a situation that will exacerbate our relationship with Taiwan,” Edwin Lacierda, a spokesman for Aquino, told reporters today. Aquino’s Taiwan envoy Antonio Basilio, who went to Manila for talks on the matter, would return to Taipei today and deliver the government’s response, Lacierda said separately in a text message.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-Jeou threatened to recall his representative from the Philippines and freeze worker applications if Aquino’s government doesn’t formally apologize. The island is also considering sending more naval ships to patrol the area where the incident took place, David Lo, a spokesman with Taiwan’s defense ministry, said by phone today.

The conflict adds to recent tensions in disputed areas of the South China Sea and has raised concerns in the U.S., a treaty ally of the Philippines that is also legally bound to help Taiwan maintain its defense. China shares Taiwan’s nine-dash map of the waters that the Philippines and Vietnam have rejected as a basis for joint exploration of oil and gas.

“We encourage both sides to refrain from provocative actions,” Jen Psaki, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, told reporters yesterday in Washington.

‘Heartfelt Sorrow’

The commander and crew of the vessel that opened fire on the fishing boat have been relieved of duty, Aquino spokeswoman Abigail Valte said in an e-mail yesterday. While declining to comment on Ma’s ultimatum, she said the Philippines expresses “heartfelt sorrow on the unfortunate situation that occurred during one of the anti-illegal fishing patrols conducted by a Philippine fishery law enforcement vessel.”

Taiwan rejected Valte’s comments and insisted on an official apology, Central News Agency reported, citing Foreign Minister David Lin. Ma demanded the Philippines investigate the shooting, compensate the man’s family, punish those responsible and start talks to resolve a dispute over the waters where the incident occurred, his office said on its website May 11.

Limits on Filipino workers, the third-largest group of foreign workers in Taiwan, may slow Aquino’s push to cut a jobless rate that climbed to 7.1 percent in January, with about 660,000 positions lost since October 2011. The Philippines’ overseas workforce accounts for about 10 percent of its gross domestic product.

Filipino Workers

Almost 1.7 million overseas Filipinos remit approximately $20 billion every year. Taiwan had more than 85,000 Filipino residents as of March, 61 percent of whom were women, according to Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency.

“It is in the interest of both parties to proceed on a calm basis,” Aquino told reporters in Manila yesterday when asked about Taiwan’s threatened hiring freeze.

China, which considers Taiwan part of its territory and also claims waters near the Philippines, said May 10 it’s “deeply concerned about the Philippines’ repeated shooting at unarmed fishermen.” Last year, Chinese ships blocked the Philippines from inspecting Chinese fishing boats in the area.

The Philippines asked the United Nations in January to rule on its maritime disputes with China. A tribunal will decide by July if it has jurisdiction, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said April 26.

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