Musings

PHILIPPINE Air Force personnel view the US Air Force air assets displayed at Subic airport as part of Balikatan 2023 exercises in Subic, Zambales on April 23, 2023. — PHILIPPINE STAR/WALTER BOLLOZOS

At the forum organized by the Association for Philippine-Chinese Understanding, Mr. Huang Xilian, China’s ambassador to the Philippines, declared:

“Some tried to find excuses for the new EDCA [Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement — Ed.] sites by citing the safety of the 150,000 overseas foreign workers in Taiwan. While China is the last country that wishes to see conflict over the Strait because people on both sides are Chinese. But we will not renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all necessary measures. This is to guard against external interference and all separatist activities. 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 about the 150,000 overseas foreign workers.”

The statement incensed Senator Risa Hontiveros, prompting her to call on President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. to ask Beijing to recall its ambassador for his “distasteful statements.” I find strange the silence of the other senators, notably Senator Bato dela Rosa, and high-ranking officials over Ambassador Huang’s overbearing advise when they are so adamant in asserting our sovereignty when the International Criminal Court persists in investigating President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. But intriguing is the absence of an official statement from Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo on the monumental diplomatic gaffe.

The Chinese Embassy in the Philippines claimed its envoy was misquoted or misinterpreted. “It is appreciated that there was extensive coverage on Ambassador Huang Xilian’s speech at the 8th Manila Forum. Unfortunately, some misquoted or misinterpreted Ambassador Huang’s remarks or simply took part of the Ambassador’s words out of context,” the Embassy clarified. It provided a transcript of the speech “to set the record straight.” It turned out Mr. Huang’s spoken words were no different from those in the transcript.

Neither were the remarks at issue taken out of context. They were consistent with the theme of the entire speech. Here are excerpts from the transcript of Mr. Huang’s speech:

“Peace across the Taiwan Strait is under threat and faces severe challenges. The root cause of the tensions across the Taiwan Strait is the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces colluding with the US. The US has obdurately attempted to contain China by exploiting the Taiwan question and breaking its commitments of maintaining only unofficial relations with Taiwan. It has been crossing the line and acting provocatively on issues such as US-Taiwan official exchanges, arms sales to and military dealings with Taiwan and creating chances for Taiwan to expand its so-called ‘international space,’ and kept fudging and hollowing out the one-China principle.

“Likewise, it should not be hard to understand why the announcement of the four additional EDCA sites has caused widespread and grave concern among Chinese people.”

President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., played down the faux pas instead of reacting strongly to the arrogant statements of the Chinese ambassador. He surmised that all the fuss might have been caused by a translation problem, noting that English is not the ambassador’s first language. “We were all a little surprised, but I just put it down to difference in language,” he told reporters. The President was unduly deferential to the Chinese envoy.

Mr. Huang was not speaking extemporaneously when he made those remarks. He was reading aloud a prepared speech. Not only was the speech written in clear and grammatically correct English, it was crafted skillfully as to be forthright in its message. There was absolutely no cause for mistranslation.

Ambassador Huang has valid reasons to be concerned at the Philippines offering American troops access to more military bases near the Taiwan Strait. His mistake was publicly advising his host country what its foreign policy should be. That is not the function of an ambassador. His role is to convey through the proper diplomatic channels his country’s stand on his host country’s foreign policy.

Mr. Huang’s imperious posture is a carryover of the high and mighty stance of his predecessor, Ambassador Zhao Jianhua. Whenever Mr. Zhao spoke, he sounded like he was the Chinese prefect of the Philippines. That attitude was fostered by then President Duterte who fawned all over President Xi Jinping. Mr. Duterte once called, facetiously, the Philippines a province of China. Mr. Huang was named ambassador to the Philippines during President Duterte’s incumbency.

If President Marcos Jr. giving the US access to four military bases under EDCA in addition to the five existing sites is cause of concern to Mr. Huang, it is as much a cause of concern to the Filipino people. Many are asking if opening more military bases to visiting American troops is in the best interests of the country.

The National Security Council (NSC) said that the sites were chosen in accordance with the Strategic Basing Plan of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. NSC Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya elaborated, “The development of these bases will enable the government to further strengthen the AFP to enable it to defend and protect the country. By developing our military and base infrastructure, we are pursuing our national interest and actually contributing to regional peace and stability.”

Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez said the instruction from President Marcos Jr. was to prepare for external defense, citing that the northern part of the country is the most vulnerable. Three of the four new sites are in northern Philippines — Naval Base Camilo Osias and La-lo Airport which are both in Cagayan, and Camp Melchor dela Cruz in Isabela. Cagayan is about 1,000 kilometers from Taiwan.

People are wondering why three of the new EDCA sites are near Taiwan if the new EDCA sites are for the defense of the country. They do not see Taiwan as a threat to our security. No Taiwanese fishing vessel has made any incursion into Philippine waters, much less rammed a Filipino fishing boat like what a Chinese vessel did.

President Marcos Jr. ruled out the use of Philippine military bases to launch offensives. During the commemoration of World War II heroes the other week, he said, “We will not let our bases be used for whatever offensive actions.” But in a Senate hearing a few days after that, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff General Andres Centino told senators that he is deploying the marines from the south to the north. Marines are generally associated with amphibious assaults. At about the same time, AFP spokesman Colonel Medel Aguilar said in a news briefing that EDCA facilities will be made available during “emergency situations” for combined use by the US and Philippine military. That statement implies “emergency situations” are apart from military defense of the country.

People are asking what “emergency situations” could require the use of the new EDCA sites by US and Philippine military forces there. Many are inclined to think “emergency situations” refer to the outbreak of conflict between China and the US over Taiwan.

Ambassador Huang was wrong in conveying the message publicly but that is the clear message of the ruling party of China to the Philippines: If you allow the US to use your bases as launching pads in its defense of Taiwan, you risk the lives of the Filipinos in Taiwan.

President Marcos Jr. and Foreign Affairs Secretary Manalo got the message. That is why President Marcos Jr. took Mr. Huang’s warning calmly and Secretary Manalo reacted to it reflectively.

 

Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor.