What’s at stake for PH in US-China tensions over Taiwan

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 10) — As tensions brew between global superpowers United States and China over Taiwan’s independence, the Philippines finds itself in a crucial position with its neutral and independent foreign policy.

As the stronger ties between the US and the Philippines appear to have alarmed China, the Southeast Asian nation is now under the spotlight with geopolitical decisions seen to drastically impact tensions.

Since the Philippines is a longtime ally of the US and a country economically boosted by Chinese investors, it is critical to pinpoint where it stands and what is at stake if armed conflict erupts due to the Taiwan issue.

PH, US and China

In April, China launched military drills around Taiwan after the latter’s President Tsai Ing-wen returned from a visit to the United States where she met House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other US lawmakers.

Beijing said the drills were "a serious warning against the Taiwan separatist forces' collusion with external forces, and a necessary move to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu condemned Beijing’s actions and warned that “they seem to be trying to get ready to launch a war against Taiwan.”

While the US has updated its fact sheet on Taiwan to reinstate that it is not supporting Taiwan independence, Washington appears to be backing Taiwan—the reason why many also see the stronger US-Philippine relations as part of Washington’s preparations for the rising tensions in the Asian region.

To show their stronger ties, Amercan and Filipino officials released a joint statement on security issues. The US has reaffirmed its commitment to stand with the Philippines against any form of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea, such as the rising incidents of Chinese Coast Guard vessels spotted near Ayungin Shoal.

Washington and Manila also showed that they are preparing Philippine troops to transition from protecting national interest through internal security to external and territorial defense.

This was seen in the largest Balikatan exercises recently held in the Philippines and the setting up of four new sites for the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and the US. The new EDCA sites are in locations seen to boost the defense near the Taiwan Strait and West Philippine Sea, the part of the South China Sea that encompasses the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone.

The new EDCA sites give the US expanded access to Philippine military bases, where its troops can be positioned on rotation and where it can store defense equipment and supplies.

RELATED: Marcos seeks 'even stronger' ties with US as he leaves for official visit

Beijing saw these moves as threats to the region’s stability.

China warned that an expanded military cooperation with the US will only endanger regional peace and stability, "drag the Philippines into the abyss of geopolitical strife and damage its economic development."

The East Asian giant also expressed “grave concern” and “strong disapproval” of the joint statement of Philippine and US officials, and reiterated its position that the UN tribunal’s ruling favoring Philippine claims in the South China Sea is “illegal, null and void.”

Foreign policy expert: China using OFWs in Taiwan as ‘hostages’

In a statement, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian also claimed the US “intends to take advantage” of the new EDCA sites to “interfere” in the Taiwan issue.

In a forum, the Chinese envoy urged the Philippines to oppose Taiwan independence and slammed statements lamenting the safety of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in Taiwan following repeated warnings against Philippine-US military enhancement.

Speaking to CNN Philippines, foreign policy expert Renato de Castro denounced the Chinese envoy’s statement, saying China is using OFWs in Taiwan as “hostages” for the Philippines to side with its stance on Taiwan.

“It seems that China is treating us like a province, telling us these things," he said. "We’re sovereign. Why should China treat us this way?”

De Castro also said setting up new EDCA sites and enhancing military capabilities are decisions made by an independent and sovereign country such as the Philippines.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said the terms of use of the EDCA sites are “still up for discussion.” But President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. already said his administration will not allow the new EDCA sites to be used for offensive operations, insisting that these are set up as a buffer for immediate response when natural disasters hit the typhoon-prone regions.

Marcos also said he did not receive any request from the US for possible deployment of Filipino troops to assist in combat operations should the tensions between China and Taiwan escalated into war. 

If tensions over Taiwan do escalate into war, officials and foreign security experts believe the Philippines has no way out and it will be involved in the conflict.

What’s at stake

Philippine envoy to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez said the country needs to boost its defense capabilities together with Washington as Manila may not be able to avoid being dragged into the Taiwan conflict.

“We are geographically situated where we are, how many miles away from Taiwan, and there is a conflict going on in our territorial waters right now so we’ve discussed it on many occasions with our friends and partners in Washington DC,” he said.

“Whatever happens in our area, we will all be affected," he added. "There is no going around it. This is something that we have to be ready for and, hopefully, it will never happen."

The Philippines geographically lies in an arc south of Taiwan. US bases in the Philippines would be critical launch and resupply points as the country’s northernmost island of Itbayat is less than 100 miles from Taiwan.

Moreover, the Philippines will be obliged to take war refugees from Taiwan. The safety, repatriation, and relocation of OFWs in Taiwan are also big concerns.

WATCH: DND: PH may tap EDCA sites to evacuate Filipinos in Taiwan. 

Security analyst Chester Cabalza also noted that Chinese investors have entered the Philippines “like a Trojan Horse” and became active and large pillars in the local economy of some EDCA sites.

RELATED: Marcos on PH-China relations: ‘Disengagement not an option’

Cabalza told CNN Philippines that local leaders are scared of the possibility of investors pulling out as this will affect local economic movement drastically. But he also reminded that “local leaders should be sensible of the framework and structure of national security as it is a collective effort to advance the Philippines’ national interest.”

The security expert also noted that it is still possible for the country to maintain its “friend to all, enemy to none” policy.

“We are still siding with that neutrality policy since we know that China and the US are two competing superpowers in our backyard," he said. "And we have both relations with Beijing and Washington and we should continue with that."

“The reason why we are fortifying our naval, aerial and terrestrial bases in the northern Philippines is because of the changing geopolitical situation that we are seeing,” he added.

But De Castro believes the Chinese have a timetable in setting up “conditions” around Taiwan and they will only use their military capabilities “when the conditions are right.”