The Philippines and the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis – The Diplomat
Weeks have now passed since the controversial visit of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. Christopher Twomey correctly analyzed that the visit triggered a “fourth Taiwan crisis”, given the deterioration of Sino-US relations. Whether either side can claim victory over the other remains uncertain.
What is clear, however, is that the future looks bleak when looking at the Indo-Pacific chessboard. The 1992 Consensus, or One China Principle, no longer enjoys the support of relevant parties due to domestic political developments in China and Taiwan as well as intense competition between China and the United States. . This is where the concerns lie in Southeast Asia. Countries in the region mostly profess to disagree on the “with us or against us” principle in foreign policy. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), days after Pelosi’s visit, issued a statement calling for “maximum restraint” and urging all parties to “refrain from provocative action “. Most ASEAN member states also reiterated their support for their different interpretations of the one-China policy.
Hedging, in short, seems like a favorable strategy in the current circumstances, especially for smaller powers. The hedging principle is however less prudent in strategic practice. Although the cover applies primarily to peacetime and looks good on paper, it should not be construed as neutrality, especially in times of war.
This is true at least for some states like the Philippines, which have stealthily elevated themselves to middle power status. Since 2018, the Lowy Institute’s Asian Power Index has consistently portrayed the Southeast Asian nation as a middle power, particularly in terms of defense networks and diplomatic influence, although this is not August that the Manila Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DFA) officially recognized the country’s middle power status.
As a middle power, the ideal course of action for the Philippines is to abide by the 1992 Consensus. However, strategic realities suggest that Taiwan’s fourth crisis will be a “long crisis” and could, over time, become flashpoint for a direct Sino-American war over the Indo-Pacific. Taiwan is geographically close to the Philippines, separated only by the Luzon Strait. It is therefore essential for the country’s security establishment to imagine the possible fallout from a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
The puzzle is whether the Philippines’ middle power status will pass the litmus test of the long crisis. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. rightly said that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan did not heighten Sino-Taiwanese tensions, but only demonstrated how tense they already are. So far, the FDFA has made the right choice by issuing only a brief statement on the matter, saying that diplomacy and dialogue must prevail. Additionally, National Security Advisor Clarita Carlos argued that the country should remain neutral. However, recognizing and avoiding long crisis is only part of the job of the Philippine government; he must also communicate his preferred regional order and act in favor of its realization.
Over time against the Philippines, the government must play to its strengths as a middle power, namely its defense networks and diplomatic influence.
The country’s outsized diplomatic influence comes as no surprise, given that it is a co-founder of key international organizations like the United Nations (UN) and ASEAN. But his legal victory in the 2016 arbitration award against China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea has made his diplomatic influence even more apparent. In 2020 and 2021, then-President Rodrigo Duterte told the United Nations General Assembly that the decision could help strengthen the rules-based international order. The Philippines must be diplomatically active and express its will to create a viable regional order next to to hope that the two parties cease their hostile relations. A good policy direction is to keep formal channels open to both China and the United States, as well as to keep informal channels with Taiwan.
The Philippines’ defense networks give the country the ability to bolster the credibility of the US security umbrella in the region, including through the long-standing Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with Washington. Marcos, in his recent exchange with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his visit to Manila last month, expressed support for the treaty, saying it was “constantly evolving”.
Although constitutional processes are required to activate Manila’s treaty obligations under the TDM, adverse systemic changes, such as a protracted straits crisis, could provide apparent reasons for treaty activation. This is why the Philippine Department of National Defense has hinted at the MDT as a political option should the tension around Taiwan escalate into conflict. It also raises the possibility of Filipino personnel being sent to serve with their American counterparts.
Ultimately, the Philippines’ best change to navigate the current tensions over Taiwan begins with Manila abandoning its small-power narrative and seeing the long crisis as an opportunity to cement its status as a middle power. Easier said than done, of course. After all, strategic business is about choice and compromise. But it is high time for the Philippines to turn the current crisis into an opportunity to calibrate its statecraft for the turbulent years ahead.