Since President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., took office in June 2022, the Philippines has quickly become an intriguing element in cross-Strait relations, and Beijing has taken notice. It is no surprise that Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian (黃溪連) has weighed in and stoked controversy regarding Manila and its potential role in a Taiwan-related contingency. Speaking at the Eighth Manila Forum, Huang attempted to divide Manila and Washington on the expansion of Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) locations. The EDCA, ratified in March 2016, initially allowed the United States to station troops and build military infrastructure at five sites in the Philippines. In April 2023, the Philippines and the United States announced the expansion of EDCA locations, adding an additional four location and bringing the total to nine.
During his remarks, Ambassador Huang outlined several questions facing the Philippine people:
Why are the new EDCA sites only a stone’s throw away from Taiwan? How will the Philippines effectively control the prepositioned weapons in the military bases? Why will the Philippines fight for another country through the new EDCA sites? These are soul-searching questions of the Philippine people and also doubt [sic] by people in China and across the region.
In doing so, he was evidently attempting to directly connect the EDCA, and particularly its expansion, to cross-Strait tensions—likely in an effort to diminish its importance for the development of the Philippine Armed Forces and improved Philippine national security.
Rising Philippine Involvement in the Taiwan Strait
Beyond the EDCA expansion, President Marcos has taken a decidedly more vocal approach to cross-Strait tensions, which at times has translated into calling out Chinese aggression. Less than two months into office, Marcos was forced to respond to a Chinese naval exercise that overlapped with the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The exercise in the Bashi Channel occurred in response to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) in Taipei. During a February 2023 visit to Tokyo, Marcos admitted that “it’s very hard to imagine a scenario where the Philippines will not somehow get involved” in a Taiwan-related crisis or conflict due to the country’s geographic proximity. The Marcos Administration’s approach to Taiwan was once again brought into the spotlight following the announcement of the expansion of EDCA locations. Notably, one of the new sites is located at Naval Base Camilo Osias in Santa Ana, Cagayan, near the Luzon Strait. Given how close northern Luzon is to southern Taiwan, this site is widely viewed as a possible location for the United States to position assets, weapons, and personnel with a Taiwan crisis in mind.
The attempt by the Chinese ambassador to start a rift over EDCA and Taiwan is not why his speech is notable. More importantly, he took his complaints and elevated them to veiled threats against the Philippines and its people. Near the conclusion of his speech, Huang attempted to intimidate the Philippines and its 150,000 Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who live and work throughout Taiwan. Huang stated that “The Philippines is advised to unequivocally oppose ‘Taiwan independence’ rather than stoking the fire by offering the US access to the military bases near the Taiwan Strait if you care genuinely about the 150,000 OFWs.”
The speech—and obvious threat—caused a firestorm in Philippine politics, led by Senator Risa Hontiveros and the Anakbayan Party list. Anakbayan called Huang a “hostage-taker” and demanded that President Marcos expel him from the Philippines because “he has no right to threaten our citizens while enjoying our country’s hospitality.”
Senator Hontiveros flipped the script on “wolf warrior” diplomacy in her statement, arguing that “[Huang] has no business being a diplomat if he is unable to engage with us in a respectful and dignified manner. He, along with his country’s ships and artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea, should pack up and leave.”
Hontiveros even stated that it is exclusively up to the “Taiwanese people to [exercise] self-determination, and this right must be upheld by all other nations that share this planet, even including the autocratic regime of China.” This point diverges strongly from Manila’s “One-China Principle,” which recognizes the People’s Republic as the sole legitimate government of China and “understands and respects” Beijing’s claim that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.” Statements like Hontiveros’ have served to draw the Philippines further into the cross-Strait standoff. Given the Philippines’ proximity to multiple critical waterways—and Taiwan itself—this could have significant implications for the archipelagic nation.
In the wake of the controversy, the Chinese Embassy in Manila argued that Huang’s statements were taken out context or misinterpreted. The issue created such a firestorm that President Marcos said that he would allow Huang to clarify his remarks personally.
It is important to note that the OFW issue did not first come to fore as a result of Huang’s remarks. Since the August 2022 Chinese military exercises around Taiwan, lawmakers in Manila have highlighted the importance of creating an evacuation plan for the OFWs in the event that cross-Strait relations devolve into full-fledged conflict.
Senator Raffy Tulfo called on the relevant Philippine government agencies to create such a plan. Specifically, he said that:
The tension between China and Taiwan is not something to be taken lightly. […] This is the perfect time for government agencies to show their united force by working together for the safety and security of our workers abroad. […] We should be ready to evacuate OFWs in the event that the current situation escalates into a war.
Even more Filipino lawmakers emphasized this need after the latest round of Chinese military exercises around Taiwan in response to President Tsai’s meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California in mid-April 2023. As a part of this round of exercises, the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong transited through the Bashi Channel to conduct exercises in the Philippine Sea.
On April 20, Senator Francis Tolentino wrote an op-ed outlining his views on how the Philippines should prepare for and conduct a potential OFW non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) out of Taiwan. He called for the planners of the Balikatan 2023 military exercises to practice a NEO during the trainings. Unfortunately, major changes to the largest-ever Balikatan exercises—which occurred from April 11-28 and included over 17,000 personnel—were not possible since he called for major changes in the middle of the pre-planned exercises.
Tolentino’s argument is relatively sound, emphasizing the maritime nature of such an operation. In his article, he stated that:
Philippine commercial vessels will transport OFWs from Taiwan to Cagayan or Batanes to be assisted in international waters by the Philippines or US navies, and then from there will be processed before their return to their respective hometowns. I believe that evacuation via sea is the most feasible necessitating the recognition of a safe passage sea lane, the most practical and the fastest way to repatriate our working kababayans [countrymen] in Taiwan should the Beijing-Taipei rift worsen.
Such an operation would require proper planning, and Balikatan would be an appropriate venue for future planning regarding an OFW NEO. However, in the event that Manila needs to evacuate its OFWs out of Taiwan, it is difficult to imagine commercial vessels being able to operate easily in what will certainly be a hotspot in the conflict. Beijing is likely to immediately attempt to cut off access to southern Taiwan by blocking off the Bashi Channel and Luzon Strait. Additionally, Beijing would surely not allow the Philippines to utilize the US military to assist in the operation.
Growing Philippines-China Tensions
Tolentino is just one of several lawmakers who now have OFW evacuation preparation on their minds. These growing calls for developing an OFW evacuation plan out of Taiwan do not bode well for China. Now, because of Huang’s veiled threat—in addition to Beijing’s attempts to increase pressure on Taipei—lawmakers in Manila are publicly sounding the alarm regarding the potential danger of a Chinese military invasion of Taiwan. And the more that Manila ponders the ramifications of a Taiwan conflict, the greater the likelihood that such conversations will move beyond OFW repatriation.
Such inflammatory statements by Chinese government officials have a pattern of putting the spotlight on the very issue that Beijing hopes that third parties would ignore. It creates an aura of defensive insecurity and provides these countries with a “tell,” alerting them to issues that are important or valuable to Beijing. The best way for Beijing to stop the Philippines from emphasizing the need for greater planning to gets its OFWs out of Taiwan is to lower the temperature—not to threaten the OFWs currently living in Taiwan.
The last thing that Beijing should want is for Manila to think about Taiwan, because Washington assuredly is pushing that agenda item during the many high-level bilateral meetings that have occurred between the two countries, including between President Biden and President Marcos. Indeed, in the lead-up to an upcoming White House Summit between the two leaders, Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez stated that the Taiwan issue could become a point of discussion.
It is clear that the Biden Administration—in its quick expansion of the military relationship with Manila, in sending high-level administration officials such as Vice President Kamala Harris, and in restarting the 2+2 meeting between the two countries’ defense and foreign secretaries for the first time since 2016—has pinpointed the important role of the Philippines for its Indo-Pacific strategy. This role is likely to continue to grow as the United States attempts to help modernize and train the Philippine Armed Forces to push back against China’s consolidation of power in the South China Sea, and to play some sort of role in a potential Taiwan crisis or conflict.
The main point: Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian recently made a veiled threat against Overseas Filipino Workers living in Taiwan, which caused a political firestorm in Manila. The remarks highlight Manila’s need to take more seriously the ramifications of a Taiwan crisis for Philippine security.