As US and Philippine defense ties grow closer, China drives wedge over Taiwan issue
Sandwiched between two Pacific superpowers, the Philippines has long had to tread delicately when it comes to dealing with Beijing and Washington’s competing interests, a complex juggling act that has been on vivid display in recent weeks.
April has been a particularly busy month for Philippine diplomacy with the country hosting its largest joint military drills yet with the United States while also receiving a top envoy from China, which has grown increasingly rattled – and outspoken – about the archipelago’s defense ties.
Only a few years ago US-Philippine relations were in a delicate place.
The country’s then leader, Rodrigo Duterte, routinely launched obscenity laden rants against US counterpart Barack Obama while downplaying longstanding territorial disputes with Beijing and seeking to attract investment from its giant neighbor to the north.
But the election of his successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, last year has returned relations to a more even keel, in part because Manila has become wary of a more assertive China.
Marcos Jr, who has been on a charm offensive to mend ties with Manila’s historical ally, is set to fly to the United States to meet with President Joe Biden in Washington next week.
He visit caps a month of frenetic exchanges with the United States.
More than 12,000 American troops joined some 5,000 soldiers from the Philippines over the last three weeks to take part in the largest “Balikatan” joint military exercises to date, an event Beijing’s state-run media has labeled an “attempt to target China.”
The climax of the war games came Wednesday when US and Philippine forces fired on a mock enemy warship in the West Philippine Sea, the part of the South China Sea that encompasses the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone.
Just as those drills kicked off, the US also hosted two top diplomats from the Philippines, for talks during which both sides agreed to complete a roadmap for the US to provide security assistance to its regional ally the next five to 10 years, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a “2+2 meeting” in Washington.
Last year the US granted $100 million to boost the Southeast Asian country’s defense capabilities and military modernization. It also plans to allocate $100 million for the improvement of military bases to which the US has access under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
In February, the Philippines granted new rights to the US military to add four bases to the five originally covered under the EDCA. The new facilities include three on the main island of Luzon, close to Taiwan, and one in Palawan province in the South China Sea (SCS).
That appears to have alarmed China.
Earlier this month Beijing’s ambassador in Manila, Huang Xilian, accused the Philippines of “stoking the fire” of regional tensions by offering expanded military base access to the US, saying that the goal was to interfere in China’s affairs with Taiwan.
China’s ruling Communist Party has never controlled Taiwan but claims the self-ruled island democracy as its own and has repeatedly refused to rule out taking it by force, a threat which Manila perceives as reason to ramp up its guard with help from Washington.
Huang also appeared to threaten overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Taiwan, which prompted a backlash in the Philippines.
“The Philippines is advised to unequivocally oppose ‘Taiwan independence’ rather than stoking the fire by offering the US access to the military bases near the Taiwan Strait, if you care genuinely about the 150,000 OFWs,” Huang said.
National Security Council spokesperson Jonathan Malaya responded to the Chinese ambassador’s remarks by saying that “the Philippines has no intention of interfering in the Taiwan issue,” and added that the EDCA sites were “not meant for offensive operations against China or for interference in the Taiwan issue.”
With tensions high over the Beijing ambassador’s comments, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang arrived last Friday for a three-day visit to Manila, where he met with Marcos Jr and Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo.
The readouts suggested both sides were keen to calm the waters with Marcos Jr announcing “more lines of communications” to resolve conflicts between the two countries over the West Philippine Sea and Manalo also pledging to “overcome difficulties and interference.”
Qin said Beijing hoped the Philippine side would “properly handle Taiwan-related and maritime issues in line with the overall interests of regional peace and stability.”
Analysts say the positioning of the Philippines makes the archipelago vital for anyone wanting to project power across the Pacific.
“The Philippines is crucial in safeguarding the national security interests of both China, as well as the security or strategic interests of the United States in the Pacific,” said Aries Arugay, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
“And this is why both superpowers are very sensitive every time the Philippines is being perceived as leaning more towards one or the other,” he added.
What the last month has shown, added Anna Malindog-Uy, vice president of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), is that Filipinos “do not want to be compromised for the geopolitical interests and agenda of the United States in the region.”
Manila may be thousands of miles away from Washington, but their defense alliance dates back to the end of World War II, as America sought to protect its interests in the Pacific.
The Philippines was a former US territory and used to be home to two of the US military’s largest overseas installations, Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, which were transferred to Philippine control in the 1990s.
A mutual defense treaty signed in 1951 remains in force, stipulating that both sides would help defend each other if either were attacked by a third party.
Moderninzing the Philippines’ military capabilities by working with the US, and establishing well-connected regional defense cooperation with players like Japan, South Korea and Australia, is a priority for Marcos Jr, according to Richard Heydarian, senior lecturer in international relations at the University of the Philippines Asian Center.
Heydarian describes the approach as a “multi-vector foreign policy of maximizing ties with all major powers without excessively relying on any one of them.”
“He’s doubling down in the Philippines’ alliance with the United States so that we deal with China from a position of strength,” Heydarian said.
Heydarian added that China has to rethink its strategy towards the Philippines, as the Marcos Jr administration is openly more aligned with the US.
China remains one of the top trade partners of the Philippines, while Marcos Jr also continues to negotiate energy and agriculture investments from Beijing.
But Manila’s growing caution towards Beijing in recent years has been furthered by recent maritime aggressions – including accusations China used a high-powered laser against a Philippine Coast Guard vessel in February – Beijing’s increased drills around Taiwan as well as maritime patrols in the South China Sea, said Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.
“These give the Philippines a lot of reason for caution towards Beijing. But at the same time, they do want to keep relations with Beijing on an even keel,” Chong said.
Support for the expanded defense ties with Washington is far from unanimous.
Some worry Marcos Jr might be giving too much access to the US, especially when it comes to bases and facilities close to Taiwan, Heydarian said.
The president’s own sister, Sen. Imee Marcos, has publicly questioned why the Philippine government should rely on foreigners for its external defense, urging for defined limitations on the EDCA pact should the country be dragged into regional conflict.
As the US-China rivalry intensifies the Indo-Pacific, their competition for influence has been localized within the Philippines, particularly in the provinces where American bases are located, Arugay added.
There were pockets of protest in Cagayan province, the northern mountainous region where three out of the four new EDCA sites are to be built.
At least 5,000 people in Cagayan held demonstrations and prayer rallies, as they believed that America’s self-interest were prioritized before the native residents, according to the Cagayan Provincial Information Office.