On the fourth anniversary of the Hague’s 2016 ruling against the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) claims vis-à-vis the Philippines in the South China Sea, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a pivotal speech putting the United States explicitly on the side of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries in the disputed region. On July 12, Pompeo said, “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them.” That same day, Manila issued a strong statement calling on Beijing to comply with the arbitration ruling, which it called “non-negotiable” and “without any possibility of compromise.” Taiwan’s government took a more understated approach, indicating its support for Pompeo’s statements without reference to its own claims—similar to those of China—in the South China Sea. “Our country opposes attempts to resolve the South China Sea disputes by means of threats, coercion, and force,” Taipei’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) spokesperson Joanne Ou (歐江安) said.
While mainly directed at China, Washington’s new principled position on the South China Sea could also serve to deter Taiwan and the Philippines, which continue to disagree on maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea as well as fishing rights in their overlapping exclusive economic zones (EEZs), from using force or military measures. Instead, there may be greater pressure for Taipei and Manila to focus on dialogue and negotiations to mitigate and resolve their maritime issues.
Notwithstanding the South China Sea dispute, China and the Philippines have improved their bilateral relations since the Hague ruling in 2016. In fact, President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to power shortly after the tribunal’s ruling in favor of the Philippines, changed the country’s posture towards engaging with China while distancing itself from its longtime ally, the United States. Duterte said his country “has long ceased to be a colony of the United States,” hitting back at Washington’s criticism of his bloody war on drugs. Duterte vowed to repair relations with China, which he called “the only hope for the Philippines economically,” while trying to de-emphasize ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. The Philippine president, however, has admitted that he has failed to make Beijing adhere to the Hague ruling given the apparent power disparities. The thorny South China Sea issue remains unresolved and will likely continue to stoke tensions between the two sides in the near term.
At the same time that Duterte has sought to improve relations with China, he has also worked to hedge against US influence and military power in the region. In February 2020, the Philippines informed the United States it was ending the Philippines-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which provides guidelines for the US military when operating in the Philippines. The move came after the US government revoked the visa of Duterte’s political ally. However, in early June, the Philippines’ Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. announced that Manila would suspend termination of the agreement. Analysts have argued that having the VFA in place would facilitate US military cooperation with the Philippines, particularly in the face of Chinese belligerence in the region. Manila, however, continues to play both sides, attempting to advance its national interests while preventing both major powers from gaining dominant influence in its country. Shortly after Pompeo’s speech on the South China Sea, Locsin Jr. met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi (王毅) to discuss managing their territorial disputes in the region, with both representatives pointing to the “positive turn” in bilateral relations in the COVID-19 era.
In an uncertain environment created by the Duterte government’s close yet contentious relations with Beijing, Taipei has struggled for greater recognition and respect from Manila. In the past, Taiwanese suspects arrested and detained by the Philippine government were deported to China, despite sustained diplomatic protests by Taipei. Earlier this year, Manila temporarily included Taiwan in a travel ban on visitors from China to stem the transmission of the coronavirus. The next day, following protests from Taipei and a threat to terminate visa-free privileges for Filipinos, the Philippine government dropped the Taiwan travel ban. Then, in April, an incident involving a Filipino caretaker in Taiwan ignited controversy when Philippine Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said the deportation of the caregiver was a matter for Taiwan and China to decide because “Taiwan is a part of China.” In response, Taiwan’s MOFA asserted that Taiwan is a “sovereign and independent country and has never been part of China.”
Robust Trade and People-to-People Ties
The positive markers in bilateral relations between Taiwan and the Philippines are the strong economic and people-to-people links between the two sides. As part of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy (NSP, 新南向政策), Taipei has prioritized the Philippines as a key market and gateway to other ASEAN countries. In 2017, both sides renewed their Bilateral Investment Agreement (BIA)—first signed in 1992—to facilitate Taiwanese investments in the Philippines. The agreement marked the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration’s first updated BIA with a NSP country. Beijing, however, rebuked the new BIA, accusing the Philippines of conducting an “official” exchange with Taiwan.
Meanwhile, bilateral trade between the two sides reached USD $8.2 billion in 2019, making the Philippines Taiwan’s fifth-largest trade partner in Southeast Asia, following Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand. In 2019, Taiwan imported USD $2.1 billion from the Philippines, while exporting USD $6.1 billion, enjoying a sizable trade surplus. Over the past decade, bilateral trade has held steady, hovering between USD $8 billion and USD $12 billion annually. Last year, Taiwan was the Philippines’ 9th largest trading partner, export and import partner, and foreign direct investor.
Taiwan’s government has sought to strengthen bilateral cooperation with the Southeast Asian nation in agriculture, green technology, fisheries, law enforcement, climate change, education, and people-to-people exchanges. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, tourism and people-to-people ties were flourishing, with more than 331,000 Taiwanese visitors to the Philippines and more than 509,000 Filipinos traveling to Taiwan in 2019. The island is also a host to more than 115,000 Filipinos, many of whom serve as factory workers, domestic housekeepers, and caregivers.
However, a 2017-18 survey conducted by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation (台灣民意教育基金會) found that nearly 53 percent of Taiwanese respondents said that the Philippines was their least favorite country. Overall, the Southeast Asian country ranked as the second most disliked country in the survey after North Korea, while China ranked third. While some commentators have attributed some Taiwanese peoples’ negative perceptions of the Philippines to Duterte’s policies, many in Taiwan still remember the public outrage over the 2013 murder of a Taiwanese fisherman by the Philippine coast guard—an incident that almost brought the two neighbors to the brink of a military showdown during Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration.
Maritime Tensions between Taiwan and the Philippines
In perhaps the single biggest incident to rock bilateral relations between Taiwan and the Philippines in recent decades, the 2013 killing of Taiwanese fisherman Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成) nearly led to a severing of relations between Taipei and Manila. On May 9, 2013, a Taiwanese fishing vessel named Guang Da Xing No. 28 (廣大興28號) was operating in the Balintang Channel in the overlapping exclusive economic zones claimed by Taiwan and the Philippines when it came under fire from a Philippine coast guard ship. The firing lasted for more than an hour, killing Hung on the spot. The Philippines alleged that the Guang Da Xing illegally fished in their EEZ and tried to collide with their coast guard vessel—claims that Taiwan’s own investigation found to be false.
President Ma Ying-jeou subsequently put forward four demands for the Philippines, including a formal apology, compensation for losses, a thorough investigation of the facts and severe punishment of the perpetrators, and the launch of negotiations on the Taiwan-Philippines fishery agreement. Ma requested that Manila meet his requests within 72 hours. In response, the Philippines government said it was adhering to its “One-China Policy” and thus claimed it could not make concessions, apologize, or negotiate the fisheries issue with Taiwan. Ma’s government responded with sanctions against Manila, including freezing Filipino labor applications, recalling its representative to the Philippines, and requesting the Philippine representative in Taiwan to return home. Taipei was also prepared to initiate a more stringent second wave of sanctions if its demands were not met, including the suspension of high-level exchanges, economic links, agricultural and fishery cooperation, negotiations on aviation rights, and tourism and visa exemptions. These measures would have been tantamount to a breakdown in bilateral relations. President Benigno Aquino III formally apologized to Taiwan on May 15, 2013. However, in a show of military force against the Philippines, Taiwan’s military dispatched warships to conduct naval maneuvers in the Balintang Channel, causing the US State Department to express concern about the rising level of conflict between the two sides.
After two years of negotiation, the two sides reached the Taiwan-Philippines Fisheries Agreement (臺菲有關促進漁業事務執法合作協定) in November 2015. The pact states that both sides will avoid the use of violence or unnecessary force in law enforcement and includes other measures aimed at protecting Taiwanese fishermen’s rights and reducing fisheries disputes in the overlapping EEZs. The agreement also set up Technical Working Group (TWG, 技術工作小組) meetings to maintain regular communication on fishery issues. The fourth TWG meeting was held in Taipei in March 2018, but some issues remain unresolved, including law enforcement in areas bordering the Philippines. Therefore, Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency (漁業署) continues to warn Taiwanese fishermen about the risks of operating in areas near northern Philippines. Also, it was not until September 2019 that eight Philippine coast guard members were finally indicted for Hung’s murder.
While Taiwan and the Philippines enjoy strong economic and labor ties, unresolved issues over fisheries and South China Sea claims remain major sources of friction. The Philippines’ construction and military build-up in the South China Sea are mainly directed at China, but they also negatively affect Taiwanese maritime interests. Taipei has protested Manila’s recent work on Thitu Island (中業島), which was seized from the Republic of China (ROC) in 1971. There are also concerns that the Philippines’ decision to build a military base on Mavulis (Yami Island, 雅米島), only 60 miles southeast of Taiwan’s Orchid Island (蘭嶼), could impact the fisheries disputes, leading to calls on the Tsai government to strengthen measures to protect Taiwanese fishermen in the South China Sea. In terms of economics and trade, Taiwan has found a partner in the Philippines. However, Taipei has taken a more cautious approach towards the intentions of its southern neighbor in the maritime arena. The new US position on the South China Sea could deter all disputed parties—including Taiwan and the Philippines—from using force to achieve their territorial claims and maritime interests.
The main point: Taiwan’s maritime and fisheries disputes with the Philippines remain major sticking points in an otherwise strong economic bilateral relationship. The new US position on the South China Sea could put pressure on the Taiwan and the Philippines, along with other regional stakeholders in the disputed region, to refrain from using force to resolve their disagreements.