THE visit of Chinese State Counselor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang to the Philippines from April 21 to 23, 2023, on the invitation of Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo, is timely given the current tense political relations between the Philippines and China over the expanded EDCA and the heightening tension over the disputed South China Sea (SCS).
The government of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is granting the United States entry and passage to install and construct four additional US military bases on top of the existing five under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Three of the four identified EDCA sites are located in Northern Luzon facing the Taiwan Strait, a few hundred kilometers from Taiwan. The other identified site is Balabac island of Palawan, facing the contested waters of the SCS.
Given the sensitivity of the Taiwan issue and dispute over the SCS, setting up US military installations/infrastructures in the identified additional four EDCA sites seems provocative and rabble-rousing vis-à-vis China concerning the Taiwan question and the One China policy. China has raised concerns about the expanded EDCA and expressed its anxiety, which is a potent source of strain on the political relations between the two countries.
Nevertheless, it is not only the expansion of EDCA that is worrisome and fueling the political tension between the two but also the deployment of US boots on Philippine soil, the pre-positioning of US military assets, the expected joint patrol between the US and the Philippines in the contested waters of the SCS, and the ongoing “Balikatan Exercises 2023,” which is thus far the most extensive joint military exercises between American and Philippine troops.
The exercises are being held at the 7th ID-PA, Fort Ramon Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija, composed of 12,000 US soldiers and 5,500 Filipino troops with live fire exercise of the Javelin anti-tank weapon system (JATWS) and “Stinger” and the use of American Himars — high mobility artillery rocket systems.
Furthermore, it can be noted that just last week, the Joint Statement of the Philippines and the US 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue was another source of tension between the Philippines and China and even between the US and China. US Secretary of Defense Austin and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with their Philippine counterparts, Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo and Senior Undersecretary and Defense department Officer in Charge Carlito Galvez Jr. met in Washington, D.C. in a high-level summit, days after the US secured greater military entry in the Philippines through the expanded EDCA. According to an article on April 11, 2023 in Voice of America, entitled “US, Philippines Agree to Finish Security Road Map Within 10 Years,” Austin said the long-time allies discussed at the meeting the delivery of “priority defense platforms,” including radars, drones, military transport aircraft, and coastal and air defense systems. The same article also stated that “experts, including former US defense officials, say the United States sees the Philippines as a potential location for rockets, missiles and artillery systems to counter a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan, which China claims as its own.”
Indeed, against this backdrop, the Philippines-China political relationship is somewhat under strain. Hence, the visit of Qin at the invitation of Secretary Manalo is a positive step and development in an attempt to cool down the tension and put out the fire to bridge mutual understanding on the differences and conflicts of interest between the two sides.
As per the press release from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), the top diplomats of the two countries had exchanged views on the outcomes of the Philippines-China Foreign Ministry Consultations and Bilateral Consultations Mechanism on the South China Sea held last March. Both sides discussed how to implement the agreements reached at the highest levels during the meeting between President Marcos and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Jan. 4, 2023.
In this regard, amid the intensifying major power competition and geopolitical rivalry between the US and China, more specifically in the Indo-Pacific region, putting into consideration the plight of the Taiwan Strait, it is imperative to ask the questions — how should the Philippines develop a positive and stable relationship with China? How should the Philippines respond to the US provocations in a zero-sum game, and how should the Philippines insulate itself from the ongoing tug-of-war between the declining superpower and the rising superpower in Asia and beyond?
Independent foreign policy
The answer to these questions is not rocket science or new, for it has been done before under the previous administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. The Philippines should pursue a genuine and meaningful independent foreign policy with peace and neutrality as core values that upholds and prioritizes its supreme national interests. Like other member states of Asean, the Philippines must avoid taking sides at all costs. It must not be subservient to the will and caprices of any superpower.
Likewise, it should terminate EDCA, especially the additional four EDCA sites, to soothe China’s concern and anxiety that the US may use those new EDCA sites in its forward military operations in the Indo-Pacific region if a war or military confrontation breaks out between the US and China in the Taiwan Strait and over Taiwan.
Most importantly, the Marcos administration should avoid the so-called strategic ambiguity that the US practices in relation to the One China policy, in which the US says one thing and does another. The Philippines must not imitate and avoid at all costs the US practice of strategic ambiguity, also known as a policy of strategic uncertainty of being intentionally ambiguous on specific aspects of US foreign policy that suit its geostrategic and hegemonic interests at the expense of another country which, in short, bluntly means that US foreign policy toward the Taiwan question vis-à-vis the One China principle is akin to a “two-faced” foreign policy loaded with double standards and double-talk. The One China policy declares that Taiwan is a territory of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This is recognized by 182 countries, including the Philippines and the US.
As far as perceptions about EDCA, especially about the additional four EDCA sites/bases, they are pretty mixed and varied, have different sides and different angles but are centered on a public debate more pronounced on social media on whether the country should allow or not the expansion of EDCA, and if it’s high time for the Philippine government to terminate EDCA.
Some justify EDCA as a deterrent against possible external aggression against the Philippines, that it will help modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and is intended for humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR), search and rescue operations, counter-terrorism cooperation, and maritime domain awareness.
On the other hand, some Filipinos are against EDCA, and I am one of them. One of the primordial reasons why Filipinos like me oppose the expansion of EDCA and the additional four EDCA sites is because of the concern that the country may be used and is being prepared by the US to be the launching pad of its forward military operations in the Asia-Pacific region particularly over Taiwan.
There’s an existential danger that the Philippines will end up as cannon fodder for Washington if, in any case, a war or military confrontation breaks out between the US and China over Taiwan. If this happens, the Philippines will definitely be dragged into a military conflict, not of its own making and of which it is not a part. Our 150,000 OFWs who are working in Taiwan will also be affected negatively in a military confrotation, if, in any case, a military confrontation between the US and China over Taiwan happens, given that the theater of war or military confrontation will be the Taiwan Strait. This is a genuine concern by Filipinos who are opposed to the expanded EDCA.
In retrospect, as a country, the Philippines should not compromise itself for the geopolitical interests and agenda of the US in containing China’s rise to preserve its hegemony in the world.
Also, the expanded EDCA, the pre-positioning of US military assets, and the deployment of more US troops on Philippine soil will not only militarize the Philippines but might also provoke the militarization of the Asean region and the wider Asia Pacific. EDCA expansion could propel an arms race in the region too. Likewise, EDCA expansion and EDCA itself are not and will never be stabilizing and deterrent factors for maintaining peace and stability in the Asean region, particularly in the Philippines. Rather, EDCA bases are magnets for military conflict and arms race in Asean and East Asia. EDCA bases are like circuit breakers or electrical fuses that any miscalculations on the ground and these EDCA bases can flare up into flames stirring conflict in East Asia, the Asean region, and the wider Indo/Asia-Pacific region. Thus, the Philippines must do away with the expanded EDCA or EDCA itself.
Source: The Manila Times