How Philippines & Taiwan differ on China

April 11, 2019

When two Chinese J-11 fighter planes crossed the Taiwan Strait median line and entered Taiwanese airspace on a Sunday morning less than two weeks ago, reaction was swift: Taiwan’s Air Force scrambled several fighter jets and sent radio warnings to the intruders that retreated and were gone after 10 minutes.

The rare intrusion, condemned by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as “intentional, reckless and provocative,” apparently prompted Taiwanese President Tsai  Ing-wen to order a “forceful expulsion” of Chinese fighter jets next time they violate the “long-held tacit agreement” on the median line of the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan’s quick and decisive response to Chinese intrusion last March 31 was in sharp contrast to how the Philippine government reacted to recent news that more than 600 Chinese “maritime militia vessels” have swarmed off Pag-asa Island: “Malacañang first hedged as usual, saying it needed to verify the report, then claimed the administration had actually filed a diplomatic protest with Beijing over the matter.”

But many Filipinos doubt what Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said was a “salvo of diplomatic notes” that purportedly swarmed Beijing. “If true, that would be, for once, a welcome display of spine from this administration. But, pressed on social media by citizens to disclose the contents of the diplomatic protest, Locsin’s classy response was: ‘You have my word for it, and that is all you get. Manigas na kayo nag da doubt pa (Drop dead, you doubters),’” an Inquirer editorial said.

Amid the public uproar – apparently fueled even more by Locsin’s usual arrogant and uncouth behavior that many find unfit for a top diplomat who ought to be respectable – over the continued presence of Chinese vessels within Pag-asa Island’s 12-nautical mile territorial sea jurisdiction, President Duterte finally spoke on the matter and asked China to lay off the island.

“I’m trying to tell China, Pag-asa is ours… let us be friends but do not touch Pag-asa Island… otherwise things would be different… sabihan ko na ‘yung mga sundalo ko (I’ll tell my soldiers), ‘prepare for suicide mission,’” Duterte said on April 4 in his speech at a campaign rally in Palawan for PDP-Laban senatorial candidates.

President Duterte’s tough statement – which he said “is not a warning” but “just a word of advice” to China which he considers a “friend” despite the sentiments of an overwhelming majority of Filipinos who think otherwise – was a welcome development for those exasperated with the administration’s routinely weak responses to provocation after provocation from China over the years.

Even if cynics see the purpose of the President’s rhetoric is merely to pay lip service to the widespread anti-China sentiment, so as to not weaken the chances of victory for administration candidates in the coming elections amid the opposition’s rallying cry against Chinese expansionism, the President’s reaction still is a breath of fresh air and a ray of hope in a gloomy situation where many are frustrated over our government’s wimpy responses and the tendency of administration officials to rationalize China’s aggressive actions.

That President Duterte finally put out a tough stance to push back China is a far cry from the defeatist attitude exhibited in the past when he inculcated in the minds of Filipinos that offending our giant neighbor will lead to war which our country will certainly lose.

Such defeatist attitude, which resulted in China bullying its way into our territorial jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea as we didn’t even bother to put up a semblance of a will to fight, brings out the truth in the classic War and Peace, authored by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy who wrote: “We very early said to ourselves that we lost the battle, and so we had.”

Our country can learn much from Taiwan that has managed to put up with the perennial threat of forcible takeover by China all these years since 1949.

“Taiwan survived the challenges posed to us by history. We were not defeated. We are an island of resilience. And we have been working tirelessly to contribute to a brighter tomorrow for our region, and the world as well,” President Tsai said in a videoconference on April 9 with key US political figures and scholars gathered in Washington DC.

Tsai cited the benefits of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) passed 40 years ago, saying it has “supported Taiwan’s development of the defense capabilities that we need, in order to resist any form of coercion.” She stressed “the TRA has helped create a force for good, and laid the foundations for Taiwan to become a beacon of democracy in the world.”

She explained the TRA has made possible “a steady drumbeat of arms sales” from US to Taiwan, and that the US supports the “development of indigenous capabilities that we are capable of building here in Taiwan.” She also cited the “closer and more robust training and cooperation” between the two countries.

“But all of this only works when Taiwan is capable and determined to defend ourselves. We can’t expect others to do what we are not willing to do by ourselves,” Tsai stressed as she said her priority since 2016 is to strengthen her country’s defense capabilities with increased defense budget that “go into strategies, techniques, and capabilities that make our fighting force more nimble, agile, and survivable.”

Learning from President Tsai, what the Philippines ought to do is obvious: Boost our defense capability by further improving ties with the US, indisputably our top and most trusted military ally. Having a splendid defense system can push back an aggressive bully and certainly banish a defeatist attitude.