TOKYO: Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr said his country could be pulled into a possible conflict in the Taiwan Strait because of its proximity to the island.
“When we look at the situation in the area, especially the tensions in the Taiwan Strait, we can see that just by our geographical location, should there in fact be conflict in that area … it’s very hard to imagine a scenario where the Philippines will not somehow get involved,” Marcos told Nikkei in an exclusive interview today.
“We will be brought into the conflict because of whoever is … whichever sides are at work,” he said, as he ended a five-day official visit to Japan.
Tensions have escalated around Taiwan in recent years, with China regularly flying military jets near the island it has not ruled out seizing by force. A US Air Force general recently issued a memo instructing officers to prepare for a possible military conflict with China over Taiwan in 2025.
Marcos said his home province of Ilocos Norte in northern Philippines is just a 40-minute flight away from the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung. “We feel that we’re very much on the front line,” he said.
In case of a conflict, the president said the welfare of 150,000 Filipinos in Taiwan would be his priority. “When it comes to the military response, well, that will really depend on how it has gotten to that point,” he said.
Marcos said the Philippines’ foreign policy is committed to peace and guided by national interest. “So we have to see what is good for the Philippines,” he said.
Citing “Asian centrality,” he said the future of the region “is decided by those in the region and not by another outside force.”
He said differences should be solved diplomatically rather than militarily.
“I sincerely believe that nobody wants to go to war … But we have continued to advise and to counsel all the parties involved to show restraint,” Marcos said.
Rising tensions in the region have pushed the Philippines to strengthen its defence ties with the US, Manila’s lone treaty ally, and with Japan, which lies north of Taiwan.
Safeguarding the Philippines’ territorial waters in the disputed South China Sea – where Beijing has reclaimed and militarised artificial islands to assert its sweeping maritime claims – is central to efforts to step up security arrangements with the US and Japan, he said.
Marcos and Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday agreed to find ways to bolster their countries defence ties. They hinted at a possible visiting forces agreement, which would make it easier for Japanese troops to be deployed in the Philippines for disaster response and military drills.
Manila has an existing troop deployment deal with Washington, while Japan participates in their annual war games as observer.
“[A visiting forces agreement is] certainly under study and there was already a proposal for certain areas,” Marcos said.
“The temperature in the region has slowly ratcheted up. We have to also, as a response, be more judicious in making sure that we are defending properly our sovereign territory,” Marcos said.
Marcos early this month granted the US military access to additional four Philippine bases – a policy shift from his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who distanced himself from the US and forged warmer ties with China. The new potential sites are located in northern Philippines, close to Taiwan and the South China Sea.
The expanded base access deal was part of efforts to strengthen and modernise the Philippines and US alliance under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. Washington has reassured Manila that the South China Sea is covered by the treaty, and that any armed attack on Philippine vessels or aircraft would trigger a response from Washington.
Marcos said the Philippines wanted Filipino fishermen to be able to fish in their traditional fishing grounds.
“These are not grand steps. We do not want to be provocative, but … we feel that it will help in making sure that there is safe passage in the South China Sea. And furthermore, we are doing all we can to protect our maritime territory,” he said.
China is the Philippines’ top trading partner. Marcos last month visited Beijing and met with President Xi Jinping in a trip that generated US$22.8 billion worth of investment pledges.
Asked if he was concerned about Manila’s new security deals with the US and Japan potentially derailing Chinese investments, Marcos said “none of these actions are directed against China.”
“Now, the coordination, the joint exercises now that we are doing with other countries such as Japan, such as South Korea, such as Australia, is really a response by all of us to what we see as a heightening of tensions in the region,” he said.
Marcos said “the primordial interest is to have continuing safe passage through the South China Sea,” where around US$3 trillion worth of trade passes annually.
“Many of our economies depend on it. Japan, including China even,” he said. “That is something that’s very, very important to all of us around the region.”
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