Philippines jumps gun on unification

TAIPEI – So far this year has seen no other issue that animated Taiwan’s political commentators more than the ongoing diplomatic feud between Taipei and Manila. The story is that the Philippines arrested a bunch of suspected Taiwanese fraudsters and extradited them – to mainland China.

Whereas both sides of the Taiwan Strait inch at a snail’s pace towards possible unification, both the island’s and the mainland’s crooks have long joined the ranks.

Since the mainland is no longer a haven for Taiwan’s criminals after the two sides signed an agreement to combat crime in April 2009, it’s the Philippines that functions as a base for cross-strait

gangsters. With law enforcement agencies that have a propensity for corruption that can hardly be topped, large fraud rings involving Internet and telephone scams act with near impunity from the impoverished Southeast Asian country.

On December 27, Philippine police busted a cross-Taiwan-Strait fraud ring with 14 Taiwanese and 10 mainland Chinese members operating from the Philippines. The gang is estimated to have made about US$20.6 million by exclusively targeting citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) who without exemption resided there.

As an extradition treaty exists between the PRC and the Philippines – but none between the Philippines and Taiwan – Manila presumably sought to seize the opportunity to curry favor with Beijing. The Taiwanese among the arrested suspected fraudsters, who had reportedly had their mobile phones, cameras and cash taken by the Philippine authorities and their passports confiscated by PRC officers, were put on a charter flight to mainland China 38 days after the arrests, escorted by PRC public security officers. This is despite the circumstance that in the weeks between arrest and deportation, Taipei judicially and diplomatically went to great lengths to stop Manila from carrying out the politically explosive extradition.

While a furious Taipei waited for an apology, Manila’s representative office in Taipei issued an unapologetic statement that rather added insult to injury: “The actions were taken considering that all the victims are Chinese, all the accomplices are Chinese, and the results can be best settled in China.”

The implications of the Philippine decision are tremendous. International convention stipulates that judicial jurisdiction over criminal activity resides first and foremost with the territory in which it occurs. In this case, given that the Philippines chose to forgo its jurisdictional rights based on territory, it should have respected Taiwan’s rights of jurisdiction based on nationality. Accordingly, any extradition of suspected felons who are Taiwanese should have been to the island. By instead deporting the 14 suspected Taiwanese fraudsters to mainland China, Manila apparently acknowledges that Beijing holds jurisdiction over Taiwan. In other words, Manila’s action implies that in its eyes, a unification of PRC and Taiwan has already been achieved.

As it’s likely that the Philippines has either chosen going this way under pressure from Beijing or voluntarily to be on good terms with it, the Taiwanese fear that other countries may follow suit. While until now to most nations the adherence to Beijing’s “One China” principle – according to which mainland China and Taiwan both belong to the PRC – means paying lip-service to the PRC for the sake of lucrative business relations while continuing with unofficially recognizing Taipei, in future, Taipei’s administrative power could simply be ignored. This will then amount to a whole new dimension of diplomatic isolation the self-governed island has to face.

The suspected fraudsters’ extradition also brings about significant implications for Taiwanese individuals in general. If the international community accepts the case as a precedent, any Taiwanese involved in disputes overseas with PRC nationals can be sent to mainland China for prosecution by any country that, for the sake of pleasing Beijing, would make use of Manila’s decision as a precedent – not to mention the great differences between the legal systems of mainland China and Taiwan.

Another scenario could be one in which Beijing employs the same kind of procedure to get hold of Taiwanese it considers political opponents while they visit countries whose governments are aligned with Beijing.

Chen Yaw-shyang, an assistant professor of public policy at National Taipei University, reckons that, although not impossible, the time has not yet come for such drastic developments.

“In theory, China could arrest political opponents from Taiwan in a foreign country in this way, but in political practice, it’s not yet possible,” he told Asia Times Online. However, Chen’s belief that if political opponents from Taiwan set foot on mainland soil, they possibly won’t be able to leave on their free will, imposes the notion that a future scenario involving a third country isn’t all too unlikely.

“When Taiwanese opponents of the PRC travel to the mainland, it’s possible that they get arrested for political reasons,” said Chen.

But it’s not as if only the Taiwanese side suffers from the outfall of the high-profile extradition. The island’s authorities passed their displeasure with Manila on to Filipino travelers and workers. Taiwan decided to cancel preferential entry treatment for Filipino citizens holding visas to the US, Canada, the UK and Schengen (European) countries and lengthened the screening process of Filipino workers to four months, a measure that could prevent 5,000 migrant workers from starting jobs in Taiwan this month alone.

About 78,000 Filipinos are currently working on the island, mainly in electronics companies or employed as caregivers or maids, remitting about US$600 million back to the Philippines every year.

That the Philippines is the first country apparently to go so far as to ignore Taiwan’s existence as a sovereign entity is hardly a coincidence. Mainland China has given several billions of US dollars in loans and foreign aid to the Philippines, and the setback in relations caused by the hostage-taking and killing of eight Hong Kong tourists in August this year seems to be overcome. From questing a mutually agreed code of conduct in the contested Spratly Islands to the recent signing of the first Sino-Philippine military deal in spite of Washington explicitly having expressed resentment – Manila and Beijing clearly have a growing number of political and strategic initiatives underway.

Under the administration of Philippine President Benigno Aquino, himself of mixed Chinese descent, Chinese investment is set to surge hugely, particularly in energy, agriculture, tourism and infrastructure projects. Philippine coal and other mineral resources will also be attractive to the mainland.

While Manila is under fire for having belittled and limited Taiwan’s sovereignty and identity in order to please Beijing, it’s not necessarily to blame. Instead, there are plausible reasons for the Philippine action other than political and economic ones.

According to Taiwan’s own criminal code, if Taiwanese commit a crime on foreign soil, they are only liable to be prosecuted in Taiwan if the crime warrants a custodial sentence of three or more years. Fraudulent activity – like the one committed in the case in question – carries a sentence of less than five years, and Taiwanese courts might have returned a non-guilty verdict, consequently creating a legal loophole.

If Manila had carefully studied Taiwan’s criminal code, it could thus simply have got away by claiming that by extraditing the suspected fraudsters to the PRC, it made sure that they won’t escape their due punishment.

According to a Taiwanese scholar who discussed the issue with Asia Times Online, the fault doesn’t lie purely with Taiwan’s ruling administration, either. President Ma Ying-jeou is heavily criticized by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for having stopped “the war on the diplomatic front” against the PRC, enabling Beijing to isolate Taiwan in the first place.

Yang Yungnane, professor at Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University, believes that it was the insufficient cooperation between the many different Taiwanese representative offices operating in the Philippines that brought about all the political uproar. Yang points out that issues related to public order or intelligence are simply not the expertise of Taiwanese overseas representatives offices.

“Although the Ma administration did make mistakes, they were only minor ones,” Yang said. “The whole incident could just as well have happened under former [anti-mainland] president Chen Shui-bian.”

 

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