Dr. Renato de Castro, Trustee and Program Convenor, Stratbase ADR Institute
A few days after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in early August 2022, the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy deployed warships and aircraft into waters and airspace near the self-governing island to show its growing naval prowess.
China’s Eastern Theater Command sent more than 10 destroyers and numerous frigates and fast attack crafts to the waters surrounding Taiwan to show that it can conduct containment and control operations around the island republic. China used Speaker Pelosi’s trip not only to show its displeasure over her decision to visit Taiwan, but to display to the world that it could form six concentric naval and air zones encircling Taiwan as a trial run for cutting it off from the rest of the world.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has expressed his preference for close economic relations with China, but one that is balanced by the Philippines’ vibrant security relations with the US.
However, civil society and the Philippine military’s concern over China’s expansion in the country’s exclusive economic zones in the West Philippine Sea made such a balancing act between Beijing and Washington elusive.
The leadership of the Armed Forces of the Philippines is aware that any conflict between the US and China over Taiwan will affect the Philippines, given its proximity to the island and its alliance with the US. This will be in the form of the massive refugee flow, the rapid return of Overseas Filipino Workers to the country, and the conflict spreading from Taiwan across into the narrow and strategic Bashi Channel and even into the northern Luzon.
The Taiwan Straits and the Philippine-US alliance
The first time the Taiwan Straits crisis became a common concern in the Philippine-US alliance was in March 1996, when China fired several unarmed ballistic missiles that landed near Taiwan’s coast. Washington saw this as unacceptable and decided to deploy two carrier battlegroups to the waters near Taiwan.
This aimed to show Beijing that Washington was concerned over its armed coercion against Taipei. This incident also led to a flurry of official and unofficial sources from Washington commenting on the strategic significance of access to former US military bases in northern and central Luzon in US contingency planning for any future Taiwan Straits crisis.
From 1996 to 1998, the two allies negotiated and signed the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which had been deemed important for the revival of the alliance after the withdrawal of American forces in the Philippines in 1992.
Eventually, one of the reasons behind the negotiation and signing of the VFA in the late 1990s, the Taiwan Straits crisis, was forgotten as the two allies focused on the war on terror and China’s maritime expansion in the West Philippine Sea. The Taiwan Straits crisis, however, would again figure in the alliance during the last few months of the Duterte administration.
On March 10, 2022, a few weeks after the Russian armed invasion of Ukraine, the Philippine Ambassador to Washington, Jose Manuel Romualdez, announced that then-President Rodrigo Duterte was ready to open the country’s military facilities to American forces if Russia’s war against Ukraine turns for the worse and embroils the US.
In an online briefing with Manila-based journalists, Ambassador Romualdez revealed that the “president [Duterte] stated that if they’re [the US] asking for the support of the Philippines, it’s obvious that, of course, if push comes to shove, the Philippines will be ready to be part of the effort, especially if this Ukrainian crisis spills over into the Asian region.” He said Duterte indicated that in the event of an emergency, “the Philippines would allow U.S. forces to return to the former naval station at Subic Bay and the nearby Clark Air Base.”
The proposal revealed that within the Duterte administration, there is an underlying concern that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would encourage China to follow suit in the Taiwan Straits, in the South and East China Seas, with the potential of causing collateral damage throughout the region.
It dawned on the Duterte administration, that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has a specific implication for Southeast Asia, given converging Sino-Russian views of challenging the US-led rules-based international order and the possibility that Beijing might take a page out of Russia’s playbook on applying grey zone operations, conducting hybrid warfare, and the use of force to acquire and eventually annex disputed territories such as the West Philippine Sea and Taiwan.
Preparing for any future Taiwan Straits crisis?
On Sept. 29, 2022, Philippine Department of National Defense Undersecretary and Officer-in-Charge Jose Faustino and US Secretary of Department of Defense (DOD) Lloyd J. Austin reaffirmed their countries’ commitment to the 1951 Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) by enhancing maritime cooperation and improving their respective armed forces’ interoperability and information sharing.
They also acknowledged the necessity of improving and modernizing their alliances to help secure the Philippines’ future, address regional security challenges, and promote peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region.
This goal requires the two allies to accelerate the implementation of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) by concluding infrastructure enhancements and repair projects at existing EDCA-agreed locations inside five Philippine Air Force (PAF) bases all over the country. This will also entail the two allies exploring new locations to create their credible mutual defense posture.
Finally, they revealed the signing of the US-Philippine Maritime Framework that will jumpstart the two countries’ maritime cooperative activities in the South China Sea, which might include the resumption of joint naval patrols by the US and Philippine navies.
During the press conference, both Secretary Austin and Undersecretary Faustino deflected the question of whether these actions are aimed to address any future Taiwan Straits crises. Instead, both defense secretaries emphasized that the MDT and the alliance are in “constant evolution” in the face of the uncertainties in the Indo-Pacific region.
This article was originally published in philstar Global. Image Source: Handout / Taiwan Presidential Office / AFP.