Tolentino wants Balikatan drills on evacuating OFWs in Taiwan as ‘precautionary measure’
MANILA, Philippines — The joint military exercises of the Philippines and the United States, dubbed as Balikatan, should include drills on evacuating Filipinos in Taiwan in case tensions between Beijing and the self-governing island further flares up, said Sen. Francis Tolentino.
Tolentino, vice chair of the Senate foreign relations panel, broached the idea on Monday after Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian cited the safety of Taiwan-based overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) if Manila will not “unequivocally oppose” Taiwanese independence.
“I advise the head of Balikatan gaming exercise – Philippines’ side – to include in the practice next year how we can evacuate [Filipinos] via ships or other sea vessels from Taiwan to Cagayan or Batanes in case. For contingency,” Tolentino told reporters, speaking partly in Filipino.
Commercial vessels should likewise be involved in fast-tracking the repatriation of at least 150,000 OFWs should the Beijing-Taiwan conflict escalate.
Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory, threatening to reclaim the self-ruled, democratic island.
Tolentino also reiterated that the Balikatan exercises and the four additional sites under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) – particularly in Cagayan, Isabela, and Northern Luzon – are not related to the Taiwan conflict.
“Edca is for the protection of the Philippines, not to protect military forces outside the jurisdiction of the Philippines,” he added.
Tolentino then advised Huang “to exercise prudence in the manner he speaks.”
The Chinese envoy earned more flak when he remarked that “the US intends to take advantage of the new Edca sites to interfere in the situation across the Taiwan Strait to serve its geopolitical goals and advance its anti-China agenda at the expense of peace and development of the Philippines and the region at large.”
Huang also said, “We will not renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all necessary measures.”
“This is to guard against external interference and all separatist activities,” he added.
Hunag further argued that the Taiwan issue is “entirely China’s internal affair” similar to the issue in Mindanao.
“You will never allow any third party to meddle with resolving rebel issues in Mindanao,” he said.
But both the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front had sought the help of Malaysia and Indonesia, among other countries, to help resolve the rebellion in the southern Philippines, which later led to the 2014 peace deal and the creation of a new Muslim autonomous region.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros on Sunday pushed to have Huang recalled as the Chinese Ambassador “as soon as possible” following his string of “disgraceful statements.”
Ready to evacuate OFWs
Going beyond the scope of Taiwan, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada said the government should have contingency plans to evacuate Filipinos from anywhere around the world if the situation calls for it.
He took note that the Chinese Embassy has since claimed that Huang’s remarks were taken “out of context.”
“All things considered — we expect our concerned agencies to put in place strategic plans in case of any eventuality. The safety and well-being of our ‘kababayans’ abroad should always be our primordial concern,” Estrada said in a statement written partly in Filipino.
He then went on: “I do not see anything wrong with preparing for any unwanted situation, and while we continue to hope for diplomacy and dialogue to prevail between Taiwan and China. We must, however, exhaust all means to ensure that our OFWs are safe.”