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MANILA, Philippines – It was a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that opened yet another tense chapter in bilateral ties between the Philippines and China under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
“On behalf of the Filipino people, I congratulate President-elect Lai Ching-te on his election as Taiwan’s next President,” Marcos said in a late January 15 post on X.
The Philippines’ top diplomat added, “We look forward to close collaboration, strengthening mutual interests, fostering peace, and ensuring prosperity for our peoples in the years ahead.”
Congratulatory messages of one president to another are perfunctory, but not in this case. Marcos’ post surprised diplomats, especially those from Manila and Beijing.
The tweet also comes as the relationship between Beijing and Manila, as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it, are at a “crossroads” over growing tensions in the West Philippine Sea or part of the South China Sea where the Philippines has sovereign rights.
A day after Marcos posted on X, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Philippine Ambassador Jaime FlorCruz to file a protest and “urge the Philippines to present a responsible response to China,” according to its spokesperson Mao Ning.
The ministry also gave Marcos unsolicited advice. “We suggest President Marcos read more to develop a proper understanding of the ins and outs of the Taiwan question and come to a right conclusion,” Mao said in a press conference in Beijing on January 16.
In a January 17 message to Philippine-based media, the Chinese embassy said, “President Marcos is the only Head of State to congratulate Lai among 182 countries which establish diplomatic relations with China.”
Marcos’ defense chief, Gibo Teodoro, also joined in the word war, criticizing Mao in a statement late Wednesday, January 17, for “[stooping] to such low and gutter level talk – resorting to insulting our President and the Filipino nation, and further debasing herself, the Ministry, and Party she represents in the process.”
The President himself has yet to address the controversy.
No media interviews were granted during a presidential January 17 event, and as of posting, no new social media posts have been made by Marcos on Taiwan.
The President’s official social media channels are handled by several officials. Under the Presidential Communications Office (PCO), the three undersecretaries are each assigned to digital media services, content production, and broadcast production.
A source from the DFA said presidential social media posts that concern foreign policy and foreign relations are usually coordinated or consulted through different channels – through the DFA’s communication arm or the Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy, directly through undersecretaries, or the foreign secretary himself.
GMA News Online, citing diplomatic sources, said the DFA did not know of Marcos’ congratulatory tweet before it was sent out.
The ‘Taiwan question’
Taiwan is a democratically-governed island, which China asserts, is part of its territory.
Ahead of the January 2024 Taiwan elections, Chinese President Xi Jinping said “reunification” with Taiwan was “inevitable.” Anxieties have grown in the region and beyond over concerns that the “inevitability” could involve non-democratic, even violent means.
Why does the Philippines abide by the One-China policy, or the position that Taiwan is a part of China?
Shutting down “official representations” with Taiwan and acknowledging the island as a part of China is among the core principles on which Philippine-China relations are based. Marcos’ father and namesake, the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, opened up ties with our Asian neighbor.
A joint communique signed between the Philippines and China in Peking (now Beijing) back in 1975 reads: “The Philippine Government recognizes the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, fully understands and respects the position of the Chinese Government that there is but one China and that Taiwan is an integral part of Chinese territory, and decides to remove all its official representations from Taiwan within one month from the date of signature of this communique.”
His father’s legacy was one the younger Marcos had made several references to back in January 2023, during his first state visit to China. A year before he was told to “read more,” President Marcos spoke of a “maturing” of bilateral ties.
Prior to Marcos’ post on X, the DFA emphasized the Philippines’ adherence to the One-China policy.
“The Department of Foreign Affairs reaffirms the principles contained in the Joint Communique of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the Government of the People’s Republic of China signed by President Ferdinand E. Marcos and Premier Zhou Enlai on 9 June 1975. The Philippines is committed to its One-China Policy. The Joint Communique states that ‘the two Governments agree to settle all disputes by peaceful means…without resorting to the use or threat of force,'” said DFA spokesperson Teresita Daza.
The last sentence is telling of both domestic and regional concerns over tensions on the Taiwan question.
Beijing has been stepping up military, political, and economic pressure on Taiwan especially since outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen had worked to improve the island’s ties with China’s superpower rival, the United States.
Taiwan President-elect Lai Chin-te belongs to Tsai’s political party and is expected to continue – or even step up – Taiwan’s push for democracy, and, therefore, a step farther away from China.
Following Marcos’ congratulatory message to Lai, China’s Mao warned against the Philippines “playing with fire” on the question of Taiwan.
“The election result of the Taiwan region cannot change the dynamics and direction of cross-Strait relations and cannot hold back the prevailing trend that China will and must achieve reunification,” said Mao.
Mao also said the Philippines should “immediately stop the wrong words and deeds on Taiwan-related issues and stop sending any wrong signal to ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces.”
While the Philippines stopped formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan decades ago, it maintains ties through the Manila Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei. In Manila, Taiwan maintains the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office.
Taipei and Manila
The Philippines’ National Security Strategy 2023-2028, devised under and approved by Marcos, mentions the Taiwan conflict as a concern, but largely with respect to the sizable Filipino worker population there.
Robin Garcia and Thomas J. Shattuck, in a piece for The Diplomat, said Philippine policy “does not capture the importance and complexity of the Taiwan issue and its implications for Philippine national security.”
“The document raises the economic and humanitarian impact that a conflict could have on the Philippines, but the five-year policy downplays the fact that the Taiwan issue, above all, is a security and defense concern that may be more catastrophic than the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea issue,” the two wrote.
Yet Marcos himself has said that the Philippines – his home province in the north, included – feels “very much on the front line” of tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
“When we look at the situation in the area, especially the tensions in the Taiwan Strait, we can see that just by our geographical location, should there in fact be conflict in that area…it’s very hard to imagine a scenario where the Philippines will not somehow get involved,” Marcos told Nikkei on the sidelines of a February 2023 visit to Japan.
There are over 200,000 Filipinos who live and work in Taiwan, according to the DFA.
Daza, in trying to explain Marcos’ controversial post, cited the welfare of those Filipinos as one of the reasons. “The message of President Marcos congratulating the new president was his way of thanking them for hosting our OFWs and holding a successful democratic process. Nevertheless, the Philippines reaffirms its One-China Policy,” she said in a statement.
Neither the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor the Chinese embassy in Manila seemed to find that explanation satisfactory.
It’s not the first time under the Marcos administration that comments on Taiwan, and the Philippines’ stand on it, sparked controversy. In April 2023, Marcos downplayed Chinese Ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian’s remarks on the safety of Filipino workers in Taiwan after Manila opened more military bases to US boots.
From the Taiwan Strait to Ayungin
Tensions were already high between Beijing and Manila long before Marcos’ post and Lai’s polite reply on X. As statements were exchanged between the two countries, a delegation of senior officials from Manila flew to Shanghai for “frank and productive discussions to de-escalate the situation in the South China Sea,” according to a release from the DFA.
The DFA was referring to the 8th Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea hosted by Shanghai. The two, crucially, “agreed to improve maritime communication mechanism in the South China Sea.”
“This includes communications between foreign ministries and coast guards of the two countries,” said the DFA.
Communication between the two countries is certainly crucial.
To start December 2023, Philippine vessels – supply boats contracted by the Navy in Ayungin Shoal and vessels carrying supplies for fishermen in Bajo de Masinloc – were hit by the mighty China Coast Guard (CCG)’s water cannons in what the DFA would later call China’s “back-to-back aggressive and harassing actions” in the West Philippine Sea.
China, as in previous incidents, was slow to pick up when Manila called as the incidents were unfolding.
Marcos, in a strongly-worded statement also posted on social media late December 10, said the “aggression and provocations perpetrated by the Chinese Coast Guard and their Chinese Maritime Militia against our vessels and personnel over the weekend have only further steeled our determination to defend and protect our nation’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea.”
China insists that practically all of the South China Sea, including parts within the Philippines’ EEZ, is theirs. Beijing continues to insist on this, despite a 2016 arbitral award that declared invalid its 9-dash line, that has since evolved into the 10-dash line.
The first full year of Marcos’ presidency witnessed worsening tensions in the West Philippine Sea – mostly in Ayungin Shoal, located off the coast of Palawan; and Bajo de Masinloc, located off the coast of Zambales.
His government’s response, beginning in the latter part of 2023, has been a push for transparency – embedding media organizations in rotation and resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal, where a rusting BRP Sierra Madre serves as the Philippine outpost.
Ironically, China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea could be seen as contradictory to the 1975 joint communique that Beijing now invokes in the aftermath of Marcos’ Taiwan tweet. The two countries agreed then that: “The Government of the People’s Republic of China recognizes the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and agrees to respect the independence and sovereignty of the Republic of the Philippines.”
“The two Governments recognize and agree to respect each other’s territorial integrity,” the 1975 agreement states.
Marcos’ strategy in fulfilling his promise to never yield “even one square inch of territory…to any foreign power” has the support of many Filipinos, based on surveys held in early December 2023 and released in mid-January 2024.
An OCTA Research survey showed over 61% of respondents said they agreed with the Marcos administration’s response to territorial disputes between Manila and Beijing in the West Philippine Sea.
A Pulse Asia survey commissioned by the think tank Stratbase Institute, meanwhile, indicated that 79% of respondents said they wanted the Marcos administration to work with the United States, Australia, and Japan. These three countries were also top choices, getting 43% and 42% preference ratings respectively, among the adult Filipinos surveyed.
In contrast, only 10% of those surveyed said they favored working with China – among the lowest in terms of preference in the survey, second only to India.
The same Pulse Asia survey showed 55% of Filipinos believe that the Marcos administration “can fulfill its promise of protecting the West Philippine Sea against the illegal and aggressive actions of other states.” – Rappler.com