Passport

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 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.

HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images

Passport

Bending to popular anger, Putin installs helipad at Kremlin

Vladimir Putin has finally decided to make a concession to his critics. But he isn't exactly bending over backwards. Instead, he's having a helipad installed at the Kremlin.

Sure, it may not be the most meaningful reform. But it does cater to widespread anger at the Russian leader. Muscovites have in recent months grown furious about the delays caused by the president's motorcades, which often stop traffic and clear the streets for hours on end. Now, according to spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Putin may commute to work more often by Mi8 helicopter.

According to a report by the GPS manufacturer TomTom, the traffic in Moscow is the world's worst. And drivers in the Russian capital deeply resent that Putin and a cadre of senior officials have taken to closing roads to get around congestion. In an act of protest, drivers in Moscow have begun honking at the presidential motorcade while they sit at a stand-still and watch Putin speed by. Thanks to Russia's ubiquitous dashboard cameras, the phenomenon is well-documented:

But Putin isn't the only one trying to circumvent Moscow's gridlock. Lower-level officials are allowed to place blue lights on the roofs of their cars and use them to skirt traffic laws, including driving on the opposite side of the road. That system has been widely abused, and self-important Muscovites have taken to placing blue lights on their vehicles regardless of whether they possess a permit to do so (the abuse inspired drivers in the capital to place blue buckets on the roofs of their cars to object to the practice). Last year, Putin vowed to drastically reduced the number of officials granted the right to use the blue lights.

When Putin was asked about these very issues in an interview back in October, he was apologetic but didn't exactly seem overly concerned. "I truly feel bad about it," he said. But when asked about French President François Hollande's decision to stop at all the red lights en route to his inauguration in Paris, Putin bristled at the suggestion he could do more to alleviate the problem. "He’s a good guy, but I don’t engage in populism," Putin said. "There’s work to be done."

For kicks (and contrasts), here's RIA Novosti's unbelievably patriotic video of Putin's motorcade arriving for his inauguration ceremony last year. Note the utter lack of either red lights or human beings of any kind along the parade route: