The Philippines Is Exercising Growing Agency on the Taiwan Issue

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The Philippines Is Exercising Growing Agency on the Taiwan Issue

As maritime frictions with China grow, the Marcos administration is becoming more proactive in engaging Taipei.

The Philippines Is Exercising Growing Agency on the Taiwan Issue
Credit: Facebook/Bongbong Marcos

The Taiwanese people have spoken: the long-time Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) politician, Lai Ching-te, will be the next president and possibly sustain and improve upon his predecessor’s efforts to stand up for the island nation’s interests. Unprecedentedly, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. publicly congratulated President-elect Lai in a post on X (formerly Twitter), stating that he looks forward to “close collaboration, strengthening mutual interests, fostering peace, and ensuing prosperity for our peoples in the years ahead.”

As many observers expected, the Chinese Foreign Ministry slammed Marcos’ greeting, remarking that he “seriously violated the political commitments made by the Philippines and China and rudely interfered in China’s internal affairs.” More so, Beijing summoned the Philippine Ambassador to China to explain the congratulatory post, advising the Philippine chief diplomat to “read more” in order to “draw the right conclusions” about the cross-Strait issue.

In Manila’s defense, the Department of Foreign Affairs explained that Marcos’ post was motivated mainly by his gratitude to Taipei for hosting about 200,000 overseas Filipino workers. It may be well remembered,  that last year the Chinese Ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian made a subtle threat to the Marcos administration that if it cares about those overseas Filipinos in Taiwan, it must stay out of China’s “internal affairs.” This followed the Philippines’ decision to revitalize the Philippine-U.S. alliance by opening up four more military facilities to a rotational U.S. military presence under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Interestingly, three of these four EDCA sites are located north of the Philippines – one is in Isabela province, and the other two in Cagayan province – hinting that the U.S. intends to use them  in a potential “Taiwan contingency.” Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said in a press statement that he was displeased but not surprised by China’s statements, stating that the world should expect more of it.

This recent drama is telling, and observers should expect more of the same from the Philippines. Over the past year, it has begun to exercise a greater amount of agency in a challenging geopolitical environment, in this case, by interpreting its “One China Policy,” enacted when diplomatic relations were established with the People’s Republic of China in 1975, on its own terms.

I have previously defined agency as a nation’s “ability to exercise its will without and despite persuasions and threats from other foreign actors.” In the international relations literature, scholars spilled a lot of ink on theorizing the concept of agency and what it means in study and praxis. Whether one is skeptical of the full potential of agency, especially of those who adhere to a great power-centric approach, there is no denying the evidence of the Philippines’ recent approach toward China.

As I have argued elsewhere years back, developments in the Taiwan Strait have created opportunities for the Philippines to maximize its newfound middle power position. Some scholars have criticized Manila’s failure to reflect on what a Taiwan conflict might entail for the nation’s welfare and security. However, I argue that the Philippines’ strategic community is evolving to become more aware of these impacts.

In any event, there is no turning back. 2023 was an innovative and productive year for the Philippines’ foreign policy. The main innovation was the Philippine Coast Guard’s assertive transparency campaign against China’s misbehavior in the South China Sea, which saw it documenting Chinese incursions via cheap drones and other camera devices. So far, this move has turned out to be a low-cost tactic aimed at publicizing and parrying China’s gray zone maritime operations. Interestingly, scholars are now suggesting that Taiwan should follow the Philippines’ model in exposing China’s penetrations of its air defense identification zone. It was unclear last year whether Taiwan would heed this advice. But more informal communications, up to and including X posts, may tell observers how likely coordination and information-sharing will take place in 2024 and beyond.

One thing is for sure – Beijing will adjust to the Philippines’ more active approach, swinging between reason and arrogance. This should lead Manila to consider how to exercise its agency in a more proactive and flexible way. In the short term, cheap shots like disinformation campaigns and diplomatic slurs will likely become more common than ever, with Chinese officials labeling the Philippines as “Ukraine 2.0,” “provocative,” “warmonger,” and a “violator of One-China policy,” among others insults.

On the economic front, while Manila has yet to be punished economically by Beijing for fighting for its interests, there is a constant need to take geoeconomics seriously before it is too late. The latest research suggests that this has implications for the supply chains of defense capabilities needed to defend its maritime space. At the military level, there is a constant need to include a Taiwan scenario in connection to the South China Sea in defense planning and to make sure that it connects to the capability requirements.

In the end, agency matters, and non-great powers have a vote in the international system. Observers may fairly reflect on how and to what extent this agency can serve the Philippine national interest and the security of the region as a whole. to