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Foreign Policy

Strategic Dilemma: The Philippine Debate over Taiwan and China

Mar 22, 2024

“Starting 2024, the operational tempo for the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) will be higher,” declared Philippine Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr. during an unprecedented visit to the Southeast Asian nation’s northernmost military base in the island province of Batanes. “[Batanes is the] spearhead of the Philippines as far as the northern baseline is concerned,” he added, underscoring the need for fortifying the country’s northern borders.

In particular, the Philippine defense chief visited his country’s naval detachment at the island of Mavulis, which is located just 80 kilometers away from Taiwan’s southern shores. Crucially, Mr. Teodoro was also accompanied by the country’s top admiral as well as the chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, thus making it a “a pivotal moment in our nation’s commitment to territorial defense and national security. “The visit marked a dramatic shift in the Philippines’ strategic reorientation. For the first time in recent memory, the Southeast Asian nation is doubling down on its military presence in its northern territories in tandem with the United States. Viewing the self-ruling Taiwan as a breakaway province, China has warned the Philippines against “stoking the fire. For China, any direct Philippine involvement in U.S.-led efforts to defend Taiwan in an event of conflict in the future could potentially cross a red line. China does not want the Philippines to become America’s dagger pointing at Taiwan. Meanwhile in the Philippines, there is heated debate about the country’s Taiwan strategy.

On one hand, a motley group led by progressives, pragmatists, and former president Rodrigo Duterte are categorically opposed to any Philippine involvement. On the other, leading Filipino strategists are divided on how far the Ferdinand Marcos Jr. administration should expand its military presence as well as defense cooperation with the U.S. in the country’s northern reaches. For the first time in recent memory, Taiwan has become a central foreign policy issue in the Philippines, where various factions favor divergent approaches towards the superpowers of China and the U.S.. 

The Shadow of America  

“We don’t want [developing] countries to have to choose between us and [China]. But we want to help ensure that they have a choice and that they can make their decisions free from coercion,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink during a recent event at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. 

Countries such as the Philippines, however, are increasingly feeling the pressure to choose sides. After initially hoping for a “new golden era” with China, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has gradually tilted towards traditional allies and partners. Following his state visit to China last year, which failed to produce any concrete breakthrough on outstanding bilateral issues such as the South China Sea disputes, the Filipino president suddenly doubled down on defense cooperation with Western allies. 

But the focus of Marcos Jr.’s new strategic thrust was the Philippines’ northern territories rather than maritime disputes in the South China Sea to the west. Several new bases were opened up to the Pentagon under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which were mostly located in the northern provinces of Cagayan and Isabela, which are too far away from the South China Sea but extremely close to Taiwan.

As if that weren’t enough, the Pentagon also made moves into the northernmost island of Batanes. Last year, Batanes Governor Marilou Cayco reportedly met with U.S. officials to discuss the construction of a major port facility in her province.

In fairness, Philippine officials tend to insist that the U.S.-built facilities, whether under the EDCA or other bilateral arrangements, are primarily focused on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations. "EDCA sites will support combined training exercises and interoperability between U.S. and Philippine forces to ensure that we're even better prepared for future crises," declared spokesperson Kanishka Gangopadhyay of the U.S. embassy in Manila, emphasizing that bilateral cooperation in the area is "not about any other third country." 

But the reality is that most of these newly-built or proposed facilities in northern Philippine provinces are fundamentally “dual-use,” namely useful for both humanitarian and combat operations. As one China expert recently put it, “Beijing will see any U.S. move to build up ports and facilities” as a potential threat, since “[they can] be used to support any potential U.S. intervention over a Chinese use of force against Taiwan as hostile.” 

Debates and Divisions 

Chinese officials have made their sentiments on the issue crystal clear too. "Facts speak louder than words. Obviously, the U.S. intends to take advantage of the new EDCA sites to interfere in the situation across the Taiwan Strait to serve its geopolitical goals, and advance its anti-China agenda at the expense of peace and development of the Philippines and the region at large," Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian said during a recent forum

No less than former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who is eyeing a potential return to politics in next year’s senatorial elections, has been venously opposed to growing Philippine-U.S. military cooperation near Taiwan. 

“Americans should come clean and give us a truthful narration…and identify the places where they have installed bases here in the Philippines,” he said during an episode of his television show last year, warning  “the next war or wars will be fought mainly using nuclear warheads” and that the Philippines “would be facing a war not of our own making” if it gets too involved in U.S.-led strategy over Taiwan.

Other prominent leaders echoing Duterte’s position are the presidential sister and current Senator Maria Imelda “Imee” Marcos, who also heads the foreign affairs committee at the upper-chamber of Philippine legislature, as well as local leaders such as Cagayan Governor Manuel Mamba, who has openly welcomed stronger economic ties with China. 

Interestingly, even the Marcos Jr. administration and sympathetic strategists are not on the same page over the Taiwan issue. After all, even the Filipino president himself has equivocated on the issue, and repeatedly emphasized both the purely ‘defensive’ nature of Philippine’s strategy as well as the supposed inevitability of his country’s involvement in any Taiwan contingency.

Many in the Philippines’ defense establishment, however, want more direct and decisive involvement through expanded military presence near Taiwan as well as growing coordination with the U.S. in preparation for any potential conflict in the future. “So if we lose Taiwan, then China becomes our neighbor. And our [entire] northern territories will be under threat,” Rommel Jude Ong, a retired rear admiral, has argued.

Accordingly, influential strategists like him believe that the Philippines has no choice but to work with allies in order to prepare for any contingencies over Taiwan. More pragmatic elements, however, have argued that the Philippines can calibrate and downgrade any large-scale defense deals with the U.S. in northern provinces in exchange for potential compromises in the South China Sea with Beijing.

In particular, the Marcos Jr. administration could, for instance, deny the Pentagon full-scale access to most prized bases in northern Philippine provinces while negotiating de-escalatory regimes with China over disputed features such as the Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal, which have witnessed dangerous encounters between the two nations in the past year. As a vibrant and contentious democracy, the ongoing debate over Taiwan is unlikely to go away anytime soon. What’s clear is that the Southeast Asian nation is facing a myriad of strategic dilemmas like never before. 

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