Nation’s US relations soar thanks to Duterte

  • By Huang Tien-lin 黃天麟

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is taking extreme measures again, announcing his decision to end the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, which has been in place for 21 years.

The agreement allows for a unilateral notice to end the pact, which then ceases after 180 days. Since it is the cornerstone of Philippine-US military cooperation, the decision is a direct challenge to the White House.

The abolition would void two other agreements between the nations: the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. It is difficult to predict the effect of this decision on future relations, but Duterte’s blunt move could give Taiwan an edge.

Since his 2016 election, Duterte, who has some Chinese ancestry, has been very China-friendly. On Oct. 7 that year, he notified the US that he would suspend joint patrols in the South China Sea, and he also terminated annual joint military exercises.

The US Congress has since made successive Taiwan-friendly moves, such as US President Donald Trump receiving a congratulatory phone call from President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) following his election victory and the inclusion of Taiwan in the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy through the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018.

Last year, the former Coordination Council for North American Affairs was renamed the Taiwan Council for US Affairs, and a US-Taiwan deal confirmed the sale of F-16V fighters to Taiwan.

Taiwan-US relations have indeed improved thanks to Duterte. The US military patrols in the Taiwan Strait last month also prove the US’ determination to protect Taiwan.

It is rather curious that the Philippines has been a “good neighbor” for the past 400 years. Japan ruled Taiwan for 50 years, and China has always claimed it, and its saber rattling and threats continue unabated. The Philippines alone does not threaten Taiwan.

During World War II, US Army general Douglas MacArthur was so eager to regain the Philippines that he changed the Allies’ military plan for attacking Japan by striking directly at Taiwan first, thus allowing Taiwan to avoid the catastrophe of becoming a battlefield.

As the first island chain becomes more and more important for the US’ and Japan’s security, while the US and China compete for hegemony, the Philippines’ pro-China attitude highlights Taiwan’s key role in the chain. The Philippines is, indeed, a “good neighbor” — thanks, Duterte.

Taiwanese might wonder if the situation would turn against them if the next president of the Philippines is pro-US.

The Philippines has always been pro-Western, so the possibility of a policy U-turn is high, but even so, by then Taiwan-US relations might have progressed to an alliance, or perhaps a quasi-alliance.

The Philippines’ pro-US stance would then only strengthen the defensibility of the first island chain, which is still beneficial to Taiwan’s security.

In other words, the situation would benefit Taiwan whether the Philippines are pro-US or anti-US.

This is not to say that Taiwan-Philippines relations are unimportant. The Philippines and Japan both have populations of more than 100 million with territory several times larger than Taiwan’s.

The Philippine’s recent travel ban on Taiwan to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was eventually lifted following negotiations, and the crisis was successfully resolved, which only goes to show that the Philippines is not a bad neighbor.

Huang Tien-lin is a former advisory member of the National Security Council and a national policy adviser to the president.

Translated by Lin Lee-kai

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