President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is known for using direct or even crude language to put his message across, and while on the domestic scene, he has been focusing on his literal “war on drugs,” it nevertheless came as a surprise to many that over the past month, he referred to Taiwan at least five times when discussing the South China Sea issue.
The region has been the focal point for territorial disputes between several countries, including Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, with potential oil and fisheries resources at play.
Duterte has sometimes been labeled as “pro-Chinese,” at least compared to his predecessor, President Benigno Aquino III, during whose term the two countries saw their ships at a standoff over the Scarborough Shoal, 160 kilometers from the Philippines but 800 km from China.
After coming to power last year, Duterte initially also took a tough stance over the disputed islands, warning Beijing not to provoke a war.
However, he has since reportedly been playing off China against Japan, mostly for financial aid, while also taking an uncharacteristically anti-American stance for a leader of the Philippines.
What was interesting in his statements is that he directly used the common conversational term “Taiwan” to describe the island nation, instead of the convoluted formula “Taiwan Authority of China” spoken by his predecessor Aquino. Of course, Beijing would have preferred to hear that term from the new president, or at least “Chinese Taipei.”
Taiwan and the Philippines have a wide range of issues they can discuss to find bilateral solutions, such as establishing a communication mechanism for the event of South China Sea disputes, joint development of maritime resources, the strengthening of security and law enforcement, and scientific research into the islands and the seas.
Of all the claimant countries in the area, the Philippines is not only geographically the closest, but it is also linked to Taiwan by common views on the rule of democracy.
As China and the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations engage in joint maritime rescue drills, codes of conduct and ten-year environmental protection plans, the need for Taiwan to build bridges to its closest neighbors.
While President Tsai Ing-wen has already taken a significant step forward by launching the “New Southbound Policy” after coming to office last year, immediate neighbor the Philippines should be singled out for even more detailed attention.
She can deepen her policy by emphasizing common interests and promoting joint projects related to the South China Sea, thus providing the two countries with a platform for ever-closer cooperation.