Philippines fortifying a Taiwan front line against China


#Philippines fortifying a #Taiwan front line against #China

Northernmost Batanes facilities and ports set for significant upgrades as US-Philippine cooperation builds for a potential Taiwan war.

“Our relationship with [China] is one of intense strategic competition. At the same time, the United States is committed to managing this competition responsibly so that it does not veer into miscalculation or conflict,” said US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink at a recent Atlantic Council think tank event.

“We don’t want [developing] countries to have to choose between us and [China]. But we want to help ensure that they have a choice and that they can make their decisions free from coercion,” he added, referring to Global South nations navigating increasingly contentious relations between the superpowers.

Speaking at the same event, veteran Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan arguedthat Southeast Asian nations, in particular, will refuse to side with any superpower against the other since they “have concerns about both certain aspects of Chinese behavior and certain aspects of American behavior.”

The situation in the Philippines, however, is unique. The Southeast Asian nation is not only a full-fledged US defense treaty ally but it is also increasingly contributing to an emerging “integrated deterrence” strategy against China.

In particular, the Philippines is expanding its military presence in its northernmost islands, which are situated close to Taiwan’s southern shores.

Earlier this month, Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro visited a naval detachment in Mavulis, situated only 88 miles from the southern tip of Taiwan and even closer to many nearby Taiwanese islands.

The outspoken Philippine defense chief, who has openly questioned the value of diplomatic engagement with Beijing, has provocatively described the nation’s northernmost military facility as the “spearhead of the Philippines.”

Crucially, Manila and Washington are also exploring a joint presence in the area under the expanded Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) – a development that would constitute a potential “redline’’ for China.

Although still hedging his great power bets, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has admitted that it’s “very hard to imagine” for his country to remain totally “neutral” amid ongoing fears of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

Reverse island chain

Marcos Jr’s decision to fortify bilateral defense cooperation with the US, barely a month after a state visit to Beijing, was doubly surprising.

For starters, it ran counter to his initial push for a “new golden era” of bilateral relations with China and his longtime emphasis on diplomacy and balanced relations with superpowers.

But even more surprising has been his decision to expand the parameters of the EDCA with a northern orientation toward Taiwan rather than a western one towards the South China Sea, where Manila and Beijing are at heated loggerheads over contested territories and features.

The bulk of the new bases under the expanded EDCA are located in northernmost Philippine provinces, namely Cagayan and Isabela, which are notably distant from the South China Sea theater.

Crucially, the two allies have also expanded joint exercises with a growing focus on the Philippines’ northern shores.

The US is also looking at developing a port facility in the Philippines’ northernmost province of Batanes, which includes Mavulis. Last year, officials from the US Pentagon were reportedly in Batanes, where they discussed funding for the project with Governor Marilou Cayco.

Philippine authorities maintain that any cooperation with the Pentagon is primarily geared toward economic and civilian purposes.

The port in Batanes, for instance, is supposed to enhance connectivity between the relatively isolated province – surrounded by rough seas and regularly battered by monsoons – and the rest of the Philippines.

As for facilities in other northern Philippine provinces, authorities insist that any US support or rotational presence will be primarily for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations.

But as one Washington-based observer told this author, those facilities could also be “dual-use.” For instance, EDCA facilities built for potentially housing HADR-related hardware such as cargo planes could also, in theory, host fighter jets and more offensive-oriented weapons systems.

But as Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and Africa Studies, recently told the media, “Beijing will see any US move to build up ports and facilities…[both] overtly military ones or ostensibly civilian ones” in the Indo-Pacific as a hostile act as they can also “be used to support any potential US intervention over a Chinese use of force against Taiwan as hostile.”

In particular, China fears that the US is trying to build an “island chain” of dual-purpose facilities around Taiwan to more effectively respond to any potential continency over the self-ruling island that China views as a renegade province that must eventually be “reunified” with the mainland.

Mixed strategic signals

For now, the Marcos Jr administration has been sending mixed signals on its stance on the Taiwan question. During his trip to Washington last year, the Filipino president equivocated on his country’s potential contribution to an “integrated deterrence” strategy on Taiwan.

In contrast to top Philippine military officials, who publicly admitted the possibility of joint operations during a contingency, Marcos Jr has been adamant that the country’s defense posture is primarily “defensive” and not pointed at any particular country, namely China.

Nevertheless, the trajectory of the Philippine-US defense cooperation in recent months suggests that the Southeast Asian nation is gradually preparing for a D-Day, both in its western and northern waters.

Filipino strategists believe China is increasingly treating the Bashi Channel, the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait as part of an integrated theater. That, they say, is driving the need for correspondingly comprehensive countermeasures as the nation shifts its strategic posture and overall defense calculus vis-à-vis China.

“Starting 2024, the operational tempo for the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) will be higher,” the Philippine defense chief said during his recent visit to the Philippines’ northernmost military facility in Batanes. “[Batanes is the] spearhead of the Philippines as far as the northern baseline is concerned,” he added.

The Philippine Navy described the unprecedented visit by the Philippines’ defense chief, who was accompanied by the AFP chief and top admiral, as signifying “a pivotal moment in our nation’s commitment to territorial defense and national security.”

Last November, the US and Philippines conducted joint patrols in the area and this year are set to stage even larger joint drills near Batanes. China has warned the Philippines against “stoking the fire” by expanding its military presence and joint activities with the US in the area.

But top Filipino strategists believe that the country has no choice but to press on, given the extremely high stakes.

“My worst case scenario is China’s [occupation of] Taiwan since the [self-ruling island] is essentially our buffer state,” Rommel Jude Ong, a retired rear admiral, told the author in a recent interview.

“So if we lose Taiwan, then China becomes our neighbor. And our [entire] northern territories will be under threat,” he added.…

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