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Why are so many diplomatic crises sparked by fishermen?

In the latest development in the showdown between Taiwan and the Philippines over the death of a Taiwanese fisherman at the hands of the Philippine coast guard, Taiwan is holding military drills near Philippine waters. The Philippines — its apology having been rejected by Taiwan — is also standing firm, saying it won’t "appease" the ...

HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images
HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images

In the latest development in the showdown between Taiwan and the Philippines over the death of a Taiwanese fisherman at the hands of the Philippine coast guard, Taiwan is holding military drills near Philippine waters. The Philippines -- its apology having been rejected by Taiwan -- is also standing firm, saying it won't "appease" the Taiwanese, while the United States is urging cooler heads to prevail. The standoff is just the latest in a string of geopolitical showdowns in which fishermen have served -- sometimes unwittingly and sometimes wittingly -- as lightning rods in East and Southeast Asian maritime territorial disputes.

The humble fishing boat, in fact, has been at the center of incidents between China and Russia; between China and Vietnam; between Japan and Taiwan; between China and South Korea; between North Korea and South Korea; between North Korea and China; between China and the Philippines; and between South Korea and Japan. And then, of course, there was the 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard patrol boats in disputed waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which set relations between the two Asian superpowers on edge for months.

How has the fisherman -- a seemingly unassuming practitioner of his ancient craft -- come to play this vital role on the international stage? There are a number of factors at play. For starters, Asian waters are running out of fish -- which means more fishing boats are straying into foreign waters in search of good hauls. Then there's the growing nationalism in many of these countries, which raises the stakes in these disputes and allows one arrested fisherman to take on national significance.

In the latest development in the showdown between Taiwan and the Philippines over the death of a Taiwanese fisherman at the hands of the Philippine coast guard, Taiwan is holding military drills near Philippine waters. The Philippines — its apology having been rejected by Taiwan — is also standing firm, saying it won’t "appease" the Taiwanese, while the United States is urging cooler heads to prevail. The standoff is just the latest in a string of geopolitical showdowns in which fishermen have served — sometimes unwittingly and sometimes wittingly — as lightning rods in East and Southeast Asian maritime territorial disputes.

The humble fishing boat, in fact, has been at the center of incidents between China and Russia; between China and Vietnam; between Japan and Taiwan; between China and South Korea; between North Korea and South Korea; between North Korea and China; between China and the Philippines; and between South Korea and Japan. And then, of course, there was the 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard patrol boats in disputed waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which set relations between the two Asian superpowers on edge for months.

How has the fisherman — a seemingly unassuming practitioner of his ancient craft — come to play this vital role on the international stage? There are a number of factors at play. For starters, Asian waters are running out of fish — which means more fishing boats are straying into foreign waters in search of good hauls. Then there’s the growing nationalism in many of these countries, which raises the stakes in these disputes and allows one arrested fisherman to take on national significance.

In addition, there’s the suspicion that some countries — notably China — really do use fishermen as proxies in their ongoing disputes with other countries — that these fishing boats are not the innocent bystanders caught up in forces greater than themselves that they seem. At the height of last year’s tensions with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, it was reported that China was sending an "armada" of 1,000 fishing boats to the islands with the goal of overwhelming the Japanese coast guard — though the reports later proved false.

Hung Shih-cheng, the 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman at the center of the current row between Taiwan and the Philippines, appears to have ventured into disputed territory with the simple aim of fishing; the Philippine coast guard has said the crew believed he was trying to ram one of their ships and opened fire.

Venture astray, and face the chance of catching fire from a military vessel as a result of international border disputes? That’s quite an occupational hazard.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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