By Jeoffrey Maitem and Jojo Riñoza
Manila monitors and plans every day for the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the new Philippine defense secretary said Thursday.
Taiwan is a key economic partner of the Philippines and hosts around 150,000 Filipinos, whose safety would be in jeopardy should China invade the island, which it considers a renegade province.
“That is something we continue to monitor daily, and hopefully, the engagements bilaterally between the United States and China leads to the diffusion of tensions in that theater,” Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro told reporters.
“First and foremost, we really have to make an assessment whether such [an attack] is likely or not. Nonetheless, we continue to plan on all contingencies, not merely any flashpoint between China and Taiwan, but any contingency within the theater.”
Earlier this year, China renewed its warnings about invading Taiwan, news agencies reported. And in January, an American general predicted that war would likely break out in 2025, although regional analysts pooh-poohed his forecast.
Among the United States’ security allies in the Asia-Pacific region, the Philippines is geographically the nearest to Taiwan.
In February, in a move that angered China, Manila granted the United States expanded access to its military bases, an agreement seen by analysts here as central to Washington’s aim of deterring any plan by Beijing to attack Taiwan.
The Philippines also allowed large-scale joint exercises with U.S. troops in areas that face Taiwan.
In his comments on Thursday, Teodoro said these moves were part of the government’s long-term strategy to develop a “credible deterrent posture.” Manila is locked in a territorial dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea.
China claims nearly the entire sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
“[I] must stress that this strengthening of our bilateral [Philippine-U.S.] ties in terms of credible deterrent posture upgrade is purely focused on Philippine interests,” said Teodoro, who was appointed defense chief by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in June.
“For me, we should do everything within our power to assert our rights in the West Philippine Sea responsibly and in a calculated and sustainable manner and not in a knee-jerk manner,” he said.
The West Philippine Sea is Manila’s name for South China Sea waters within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Manila and Washington are signatories to a decades-old Mutual Defense Treaty, which is the basis for their military cooperation.
Under that accord, the two allies will come to each other’s aid if either is attacked by an outside power. The treaty allows for U.S. troops to take part in large-scale joint exercises on Philippine soil – something the local defense establishment believes is necessary for protecting the country’s shores from threats from China, especially in the South China Sea.
A survey released by pollster Pulse Asia earlier this week showed that 75% of Filipinos were in favor of working with the U.S. to confront territorial disputes with China over the West Philippine Sea.
Incidents at sea ‘could have been avoided’
Meanwhile, a change in military leadership this week resulted from a decision by the Marcos administration to home in on issues in the West Philippine Sea, outgoing military chief Gen. Andres Centino said.
He was named presidential advisor on the West Philippine Sea on Wednesday. Army chief Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner takes over from Centino as head of the armed forces.
“There was a need to bring focus on matters in that part of the country,” Centino said, referring to the West Philippine Sea.
“Our leadership has deemed it important to give focus and importance, the way we address the issues there, on a bigger scale. That’s why they thought of creating an office of the presidential adviser.”
Centino was asked which were the specific issues the government wanted to address in the West Philippine Sea. He replied, “reports of incursion.”
“In the past months, we had incidents there. Perhaps, if addressed properly, these could have been avoided,” he said.
Centino was referring to a close call between Chinese and Philippine ships in Manila’s EEZ in the South China Sea earlier this month. Additionally, the Chinese coast guard ship in February pointed a laser at a Philippine vessel, causing temporary blindness to the Filipino crew.
There are “geopolitical issues that have to be addressed more appropriately,” and that is why the office of the presidential adviser on the West Philippine Sea was created, Centino said.
“What is clear is that there should be more focus on how we handle or address the problems there,” he said.