SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

The US military facilities being set up in Northern Luzon, according to Philippine officials, are meant to enhance the Philippines’ defense capability, and will not be used for offensive operations against China.

Philippine officials have also stressed that Manila does not intend to meddle in the issues between China and Taiwan, considered a renegade province by Beijing.

The sites, to be developed by the US under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the treaty allies, were identified by the Armed Forces of the Philippines “based on the requirements for strategic basing and development of the AFP (and) were not US-dictated,” according to our National Security Council.

Defense officials have said the EDCA sites will also facilitate assistance to approximately 150,000 Filipinos working in Taiwan in case tension escalates between the self-ruled island and China.

Some quarters have raised concern that the additional EDCA sites in Cagayan – at the Camilo Osias Naval Base and Lal-lo Airport – are magnets for attacks on the Philippines in case China makes good on its threat to retake Taiwan by force.

But being a treaty ally of the US, wouldn’t the Philippines be a natural target anyway in case armed conflict erupts between the Americans and Chinese? “Mutual” is the operative word in the Mutual Defense Treaty, meaning both countries are committed to come to each other’s defense in case of attack.

The initial reaction of China to the report about the four additional EDCA sites was to tell the Philippines to “unequivocally oppose” Taiwan independence.  Equating the approval of the sites with support for Taiwan independence was a big leap of logic, especially since the Taiwanese themselves, according to officials, are not gung-ho about declaring independence from the mainland. The advice from the Chinese can also be considered interference in Philippine affairs.

*      *      *

In my interview last week with Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu at his office in Taipei, he said public opinion surveys are conducted regularly by credible pollsters, asking their people about the policy they want to pursue on the issue of China.

Wu said the consistent preference, according to the surveys, is to maintain the status quo, rejecting Beijing’s condition that Taipei must accept a “one country, two systems” model of unification.

“To us, we are not run by China. And the status quo is that Taiwan is an autonomous state. Taiwan runs by itself,” Wu told me. “We have a president, publicly elected. We have a parliament, publicly elected as well, and we have a Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we have a Ministry of National Defense, and we even have an independent currency note, which is the New Taiwan dollar. And therefore, Taiwan is not part of the PROC. This is obvious to everybody.”

If you need a visa to enter a particular place on this planet, it is generally deemed to be a country.

“We understand the subtlety and the problems associated with the Chinese claim of Taiwan. And we don’t want to be a provocateur. We don’t want to offend anyone. We don’t want to cause any conflict in this region,” Wu said. “But… we want to safeguard the current status quo, which is in the best interest of all parties concerned.”

For years, the international community recognized the government led by Chiang Kai-shek that relocated to Taiwan in 1949 as the legitimate government of China.

It says a lot about what drives geopolitics that on Oct. 25, 1971, the United Nations General Assembly withdrew its recognition of the Republic of China, a.k.a. Taiwan, and recognized the People’s Republic of China as the only legitimate representative of China to the UN.

When it comes to civil wars and other internal conflicts, it’s probably too complicated to make ideology drive acceptance by the international community. Instead, whoever emerges as the victor gets official recognition. Even Afghanistan under the Taliban remains a UN member.

Democracy? Human rights? Tell that to the people of Hong Kong, the model for China’s one-country, two systems policy that it wants to impose on Taiwan.

You’d think democracies, with all the preaching about universal human rights, would take a firmer stand based on ideology in this issue. Instead democracies seem happy to engage with authoritarian China (especially if their economies benefit from it) and ignore democratic Taiwan.

Also, size matters, and possession is nine-tenths of the law. Between the 1.2 million Chinese who fled to Taiwan in 1949 and the nearly 542 million who didn’t, plus the sheer land area of the mainland, I guess the UN didn’t think twice about kicking out Taiwan and recognizing the one-China policy.

*      *      *

To this day, Taiwan cannot even get observer status in the UN or, crucially during the SARS outbreak and COVID pandemic, in the World Health Organization.

WHO exclusion deprived Taiwan of access to critical information when severe acute respiratory syndrome broke out in China’s Guangdong province in November 2002 and jumped overseas, raging through 2003. Taiwan suffered the highest death toll from SARS, with 181 lives lost.

But the hard lessons the Taiwanese learned from SARS are widely seen as the reason why Taiwan had one of the best preventive responses when COVID-19 leapt out of the Chinese city of Wuhan and spread sickness, death and economic devastation across the planet.

Being treated almost like an international pariah has also given the Taiwanese a strong sense of national unity and drive to achieve. It is classified by the World Bank as a high-income economy, with its GDP per capita hitting US$33,011 as of 2021 (it was $3,461 for the Philippines).

Last year, Taiwan ranked sixth among 184 economies in The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, and 15th among 190 as of December 2020 in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings. Among 63 economies assessed last year, Taiwan placed seventh in the World Competitiveness Yearbook.

Its open society is reflected in its ranking in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index – 38th among 180 countries and territories, with the Philippines ranking 147th and China 175th (Hong Kong plummeted from 68th to 148th).

Unfortunately for democratic, prosperous Taiwan, if it suffers the same fate as Hong Kong, the world will likely just look away.

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CORRECTION: Due to travel rush, I inadvertently sent the unedited version of my previous column from Taiwan. My apologies. This portion should have read:

The media congress tends to pick venues with press freedom issues, such as Moscow in 2006 and South Africa under the controversial Jacob Zuma.

In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin was the keynote speaker. He made a show of being tolerant of dissent at the time, looking unfazed...

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