To curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, the Philippines barred entry of foreigners who have visited China, Hong Kong, and Macau in the last 14 days. But the travel ban was abruptly expanded to include Taiwan as part of its One China Policy on February 10, leaving hundreds of Taiwanese travelers stranded.

The move seems to be part of a bigger geopolitical picture where the Rodrigo Duterte administration is cozying up to China while diminishing its ties with the United States.

Despite Taiwan’s completely separate governance and healthcare system, the World Health Organization has included Taiwan as part of China in its risk assessment. Vietnam and Italy previously issued similar travel restrictions on Taiwanese tourists after observing the WHO guidelines.

Yet the Philippines did not mention that it was following the WHO guidelines in its clarification on the travel ban. The Philippine Civil Aeronautics Board merely stated it will “include Taiwan under the One China Policy."

The Philippines has already seen public outrage and domestic resistance regarding the government’s handling of the epidemic and the country’s shifting stance towards China. The hashtag #OustDuterte went viral on Twitter, and protesters took to the streets after the government prioritized relations with China over protecting its citizens from the coronavirus.

The Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO) in Taipei retaliated to the travel ban with a warning on February 12 that Taiwan could terminate visa-free privileges for Filipinos in response to the travel bans.

Escalations like this would significantly hurt the friendly relations Taiwan and The Philippines have built in the past few years. A travel ban might destabilize the bilateral trade agreement, or jeopardize the “One Country, One Center” public health program, which connected hospitals between both nations, leaving a gap in medical cooperation in a time of crisis.

Economic ties will undoubtedly be upheaved. Over 115,000 Filipinos live and work in Taiwan, mostly as factory or household workers. Their visa could potentially be impacted if Taiwan terminates the visa privileges for Filipinos.

The day after expanding the travel restriction, the Philippines also announced that it will terminate a military agreement with the U.S, which allowed American troops to train in the Philippines. The U.S. embassy in Manila responded by stating it was “a serious step with significant implications for the U.S.-Philippines alliance.”

The American interest in the Philippines is primarily its tactical position in the highly contested South China Sea and the ongoing war on Islamic extremism in the South East Asian country.

The U.S.-Philippines alliance has been under pressure ever since Duterte took office in 2016. Duterte’s ongoing charm offense toward China could mean a significant blow to the line-up of U.S. allies in Southeast Asia, just when the Western superpower is attempting to reposition itself in the geopolitical struggle against China and Russia.

Taiwan has been approaching the travel ban in a diplomatic way but officials have certainly grown more vocal over the WHO exclusion in the last weeks. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou slammed the Philippines, saying the “disease knows no national boundaries and there should be no loopholes in global epidemic prevention.” She added that “putting political considerations over people’s health and safety is extremely vile.”

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said he would bring the objections to the ban to the president's attention. However, an emboldened Duterte, who has been on a spree to turn away established allies, will likely uphold the travel ban to appease Beijing.

READ NEXT: Why Taiwan Handles Coronavirus Outbreak Better Than Singapore

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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