US and Philippines increase military ties over China threat

The Philippines and US are increasing military co-operation, including doubling the number of troops involved in joint exercises next year, as Manila starts to consider its role in a potential war with China over Taiwan.

The US and Philippines will next year send 16,000 forces to participate in Balikatan, their main annual bilateral military exercise, said Colonel Michael Logico, director of the Philippine military’s Joint and Combined Training Center, which recently hosted a planning conference with US counterparts.

“We are going to do a full battle test for operating together, including in Northern Luzon” near the country’s sea border with Taiwan, Logico said in an interview with the Financial Times.

At annual bilateral defence talks that will be hosted by US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii next week, military leaders will discuss more than 500 bilateral activities for the coming year, an increase from some 300 this year.

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin and Filipino defence minister Jose Faustino Jr will meet on Thursday — the first time defence ministers from the allies will join the talks, according to two people familiar with the event.

The stepped up co-operation comes after China’s increasing military activity around Taiwan unsettled senior Filipino officials and won their support for reinvigorating the country’s alliance with the US, which was weakened when then-president Rodrigo Duterte attempted a pivot to China in 2016.

In a meeting with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr in New York this week, Joe Biden said the relationship between the countries had “very deep roots”.

“We’ve had some rocky times, but the fact is it’s a critical, critical relationship, from our perspective,” the US president said. “I hope you feel the same way.”

Gregory Poling, a south-east Asia expert at CSIS, a Washington think-tank, said there was “a growing recognition of the role of the Philippines in a Taiwan scenario”.

“You’re starting to see a consensus emerge within most of the Philippines’ government that the Philippines does need to deepen the alliance with the US,” Poling said.

Other US allies have also grown worried about the risks that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would pose for them. In recent years, Japan has stepped up consultations, planning and drills with the US for such a scenario.

“We are a US ally, we are in a strategic location. We are so near that if anything happens in Taiwan we will be involved,” said General Emmanuel Bautista, former chief of staff of the armed forces of the Philippines.

Pointing to waterways connecting the South China Sea and the Pacific through the Philippines — such as the Bashi Channel in the north and the Sibutu Passage in the south — Bautista said the Philippines was “key terrain” for US-China competition because control of the country could give either side a marked advantage over its adversary.

Bautista said that navies used sea channels around the Philippines in the second world war to gain critical access for naval battles.

“Either China or the US will want to seize the Philippines to be able to control the chokepoints and the access to Taiwan” in the event of a conflict, Bautista added. “For the US it’s access for resupplying Taiwan, for China preventing that.”

One focus is on the islands in the Bashi Channel, only 120km from Taiwan at their northernmost point.

Lisa Curtis, an Indo-Pacific expert at the CNAS think-tank in Washington, said Manila was “wary of getting stuck in the middle of increasing US-China competition” but the new Marcos government seemed realistic about what Washington might request in the event of a Taiwan conflict.

“Washington would almost certainly look to Manila as a staging ground for logistics support and US forces. That is why it is important for the US and the Philippines to advance talks on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement,” said Curtis, in a reference to the 2014 bilateral agreement whose implementation has significantly slowed in recent years.

Last November, the two countries said they would explore additional sites in which US forces would be allowed a rotational presence — which experts understood to mean US forces could gain access to bases on those islands.

Logico said a Chinese company’s attempt to gain control of Fuga Island north of Luzon for a development project in 2019 — quickly stopped by the military — made the armed forces focus more on the north.

“The Chinese have no use for Fuga. It really is about Taiwan, to deny us, and in extension the US, the use of those islands,” Logico added.

Several current and former Filipino military officials said the Philippines would be the most suitable corridor for US forces to resupply Taiwan with munitions in wartime. According to two people in Manila familiar with the situation, Filipino and US forces have started discussing options for this.

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