Philippines-Taiwan relations

[ANALYSIS] How the Philippines should pursue relations with Taiwan under William Lai

Thomas Shattuck, Robin Michael Garcia

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[ANALYSIS] How the Philippines should pursue relations with Taiwan under William Lai

FILE PHOTO: Taiwan's then-Vice President William Lai announces his "National Project of Hope" ahead of the upcoming presidential election in Taipei, Taiwan September 6, 2023.

REUTERS/Ann Wang/File Photo

'The first item on the list should be which Philippine government official, if any, should attend Lai’s inauguration'

On January 13, 2024, the people of Taiwan elected William Lai Ching-te to serve as their next president, succeeding current President Tsai Ing-wen, who has served two terms in the position. Lai’s election likely marks continuity in Taipei’s assertive approach to China as well as a friendly approach to Southeast Asia, which Tsai had prioritized through the “New Southbound Policy.” The Philippines stands to benefit from the new Lai administration because a pro-China candidate can only strengthen China’s ability to project its power over the Philippines. President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Romualdez Marcos should also foster closer ties with Taiwan because the New Southbound Policy’s investment thrust may serve the Philippine economy well but also a Taiwan conflict may spill over Luzon. 

After Lai won the election, Marcos issued a congratulatory statement, “On behalf of the Filipino people, I congratulate President-elect Lai Ching-te on his election as Taiwan’s next President. We look forward to close collaboration, strengthening mutual interests, fostering peace, and ensuring prosperity for our peoples in the years ahead.”

The short congratulations angered Beijing, resulting in Philippine Ambassador to China Jaime FlorCruz getting summoned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get chastised for Marcos’ statement. Beijing argued that the two sentences violated the so-called “One China Principle.” The Philippine Ministry of Foreign Affairs refuted Beijing’s claims by reaffirming its One China Principle and stating that the congratulatory remarks was “his way of thanking [Taiwan] for hosting our [Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW)] and holding a successful democratic process.”

Manila somewhat stood its ground in the face of Beijing’s ire. Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro accused Chinese officials of engaging in “low and gutter-level talk” after Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning advised Marcos to “read more books to properly understand the ins and outs of the Taiwan issue.” Senator Risa Hontiveros even called for Manila to “review this so-called One China Policy. China has done far worse things in our territories compared to a congratulatory message to Taiwan.”

Such remarks are not surprising considering the ongoing tensions between Manila and Beijing over the Ayungin Shoal and the BRP Sierra Madre, which is largely characterized by Chinese overreach and aggression against Philippine assets and personnel. Looking forward to Lai’s inauguration in May 2024, what should the Marcos administration do to strengthen the information relationship between Manila and Taipei?

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The first item on the list should be which Philippine government official, if any, should attend Lai’s inauguration. Given restrictions on government-to-government interactions between Manila and Taipei due to the former’s One China Principle, the person will likely not be a high-level cabinet official, whose participation would be particularly controversial. And an official from the Marcos administration is unlikely to attend after Marcos himself tried to appease China’s concerns by stating, “We are not endorsing Taiwanese independence. Taiwan is a province of China but the manner in which they will be brought together again is an internal matter.”

No matter what, Manila should be represented at the inauguration. One candidate should be Secretary Fredrick Go, the new Special Assistant to the President for Investments and Economic Affairs with a rank of Secretary. Secretary Go has been a prominent actor in President Marcos’ numerous foreign trips with heads of state. Another could be Secretary of Tourism Christina Frasco, who also spearheads cultural efforts for tourism. Alternatively, the Chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts of the Philippines (NCCA) Victorino Mapa Manalo could be an option. Either of these three officials would fall under the economic and cultural mandate of the unofficial Manila Economic and Cultural Office Philippine Representative Office in Taipei.

If tensions in the disputed seas get worse before May, then Marcos should seriously consider sending a higher-level official whose attendance would carry greater symbolism, such as former foreign secretary and current Special Envoy of the President to the People’s Republic of China for Special Concerns Teddy Locsin Jr. Such an attendee would send a message to Beijing that it does not dictate Philippines-Taiwan relations and that as Manila and Taipei might have more in common when it comes to tensions with China than Beijing is comfortable with.

Lawmakers in Manila should also consider attending. Members of the Senate who have been very vocal against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea would score additional anti-China points by attending Lai’s inauguration. A top candidate for attendance should be Hontiveros since she visited Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei in May 2023. Senator Raffy Tulfo should also consider attending given his role in criticizing the Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines for threatening Overseas Filipino Workers in Taiwan.

It is time for Manila to send a message of support for Taiwan by having a delegation attend Lai’s inauguration. Considering there will be other similar ministers, secretaries, and lawmakers, whoever does attend will not be singled out.

The next thing that Marcos should do is to secure meetings between the head of Manila’s unofficial diplomatic office in Taipei with Lai’s transition team to discuss Taiwan’s economic investments in the Philippines. Such a meeting is regular business for officials in the Taipei office and would not be considered out of the ordinary. Manila should seek clarification on how Lai views the future of Taiwanese investment in the Philippines and his overall economic strategy for engaging with Southeast Asia.

Given the likelihood of continued tensions between Beijing and Taipei under Lai, Marcos should prioritize defense conversations with the Biden administration regarding spillover effects of a Taiwan crisis onto the Philippines. Joint exercises between the two countries’ militaries should seriously practice for related contingencies. Such planning would inform the United States of the capabilities of the Philippines should the worse-case scenario happen in the Taiwan Strait. And such conversations and exercises should be not limited to just engaging with Washington.

[ANALYSIS] How the Philippines should pursue relations with Taiwan under William Lai

With Lai set for the presidency, Manila should fast-track defense arrangements with Tokyo as well as Hanoi, which have already gained momentum. Another four years of the Democratic Progressive Party in power in Taipei and the resulting cross-Strait tensions should further drive Manila and Tokyo together.

These are just a few items for politicians and lawmakers in Manila to consider in coming months before Vice President Lai becomes President Lai. Manila should not fear reprisals from Beijing for engaging with Taipei as the current standoff in the South China Sea has already pitted the two against each other. Instead, Marcos should embrace the new opportunities that a Lai presidency may offer for the Philippines. –

Thomas J. Shattuck is a Senior Program Manager at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House. Thomas Shattuck is a Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute, Non-Resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Foreign Policy Initiative, and the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program, where he participated in 2022 US-Philippines Next-Generation Leaders in Security Initiative.

Robin Michael Garcia is president and chief executive officer of WR Advisory Group, an assistant professor in the political economy program at the University of Asia & the Pacific in Manila, Philippines, and a 2023-24 Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House.

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    Thanks to both writers, Professors Thomas Shattuck and Robin Michael Garcia, for their insights. Let us hope that President Marcos Jr. would heed their advice: “Marcos should embrace the new opportunities that a Lai presidency may offer for the Philippines.”

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