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US-China tensions over Taiwan cast cloud over Biden, Marcos meeting

By Beting Laygo Dolor, Editor

MANILA – While not exactly trapped between the proverbial rock and a hard place, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will be walking a figurative tight rope when he meets with US President Joe Biden next week.

Marcos leaves for the US this weekend for a four-day official visit, and his meeting with Biden is considered the highlight of his trip. That face-to-face meeting is set for May 1, or Labor Day.

While the meeting of the two leaders will tackle such issues as deepening economic cooperation, climate change, human rights, and promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific region, there will be an elephant in the room in the form of China’s recent warning to the Philippines over supporting the US’s supposed plan to have an independent Taiwan.

A statement from Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian regarding the fate of the 150,000 overseas Filipino workers was seen as a veiled threat to the government to be very careful where statements regarding Taiwan are concerned.

The Chinese embassy later said their envoy was misquoted, while President Marcos said it was likely a miscommunication problem since English was not Huang’s native tongue.

The ongoing Balikatan exercises which end this week plus the recent expansion of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA has been seen by Beijing as a threat to its One China policy, which sees Taiwan as an integral part of the People’s Republic of China.

The Philippines recently reminded Beijing that the country has long subscribed to the One China policy, as has the US.

But the Chinese envoy noted that three of the four new EDCA sites are close to Taiwan, the Philippines’ closest neighbor to its north.

The Philippines now has nine EDCA sites and along with the decades’ old PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty has been cause for concern for China.

Two of the president’s cousins who occupy high government posts have also not shied away from making their pro-US leanings known.

Said House Speaker Martin Romualdez – the president’s cousin – this week, “Our security alliance under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty is ironclad. Our economic partnership is robust. And the friendship between our two peoples is solid.”

The Speaker also took an apparent swipe at the president’s predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, under whose six-year term the Philippines veered towards China and away from the US.

Romualdez said the president “has reintegrated relations with the US not only to provide peace and stability in our region, but also prosperity for our people.”

Yet another cousin of the president, Philippine ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel ‘Babe’ Romualdez, had earlier spoken out against China’s intrusions on the country’s waters in less-than-diplomatic terms. But he said that the four new EDCA sites would not be extensively discussed by Biden and Marcos as it had recently been raised in the 2+2 meeting between the foreign and defense secretaries of both nations earlier this month.

The Philippine ambassador noted another layer in the complex relations that the Philippine president faces where the US and China are concerned.

China, he said, “is our number one trading partner.” This was a position that the US had occupied for many decades.

After China, Japan is the second largest trading partner of the Philippines.

“So the US is one of those countries that we would like to be able to have more trade (with), he said.

He said the president would likely seek Biden’s help for the US Congress to renew the Philippines’ access to US trade preferences for developing economies, which expired in 2020.

He added that part of the tightrope that President Marcos has to walk is assuring China that it remains a valued friend and trading partner of the Philippines.

Ambassador Romualdez said the country did not want its powerful neighbor “to feel that we are out on an offensive because of our relationship with the US. Everything we are doing is purely for the defense of our country.”

Marcos, however, may have sent a strong message to China when he attended the Balikatan exercise on Wednesday, Apr. 26, the day before he flies to the US.