US Holds Drills With the Philippines at Tiny Island Near Taiwan

US Holds Drills With the Philippines at Tiny Island Near Taiwan
US Holds Drills With the Philippines at Tiny Island Near Taiwan

(Bloomberg) — Black Hawk helicopters descended to Itbayat before noon on Monday, ushering a platoon of US and Philippine marines to conduct rare military drills on the Southeast Asian nation’s northernmost inhabited island — and one of its closest to Taiwan.

The 3,000 residents of the tiny island find themselves in the middle of a joint training exercise simulating the retaking of an airfield — part of the ongoing Balikatan, or “shoulder-to-shoulder,” exercises that Washington and Manila have been conducting annually for decades .

While attention has focused on rising tensions between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, the inclusion of Itbayat in this year’s drills highlights the role that the Philippines could play in any potential conflict over Taiwan.

Part of the Batanes island group, Itbayat sits just about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Taiwan’s southernmost tip. Its terrain and location speak to the strong appeal of the Philippines to US military planners — the country’s 7,600 islands are the perfect place to base the kind of anti-ship and intelligence assets that would be needed to counter a Chinese invasion.

“We’re here as a deterrent — we’re offering a credible fighting capability,” said Major Robert Patterson, who’s commanding the forces going out to Itbayat. “You’re stronger together than you are alone.”

Bloomberg News was part of a small group of media invited to witness the drills.

In the pristine but remote tropical island of Itbayat, the US is also helping build a warehouse to upgrade infrastructure and ensure that residents become comfortable with their recurring presence. The local government is expected to assume control of the US Army-built facility once it’s completed.

Philippine politicians say their country would not get involved in any future conflict over Taiwan and insist that the Balikatan drills are conducted solely to protect their own territory. But even the possibility of a passive Philippine involvement would pose challenges for Beijing.

“The prospect of US access to facilities in the Philippines is a real problem for China,” said Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official. “It’s easier to hide forces there than in the handful of Japanese islands closest to Taiwan, which presents a big intelligence challenge for Beijing.”

The potential role of the Philippines in a Taiwan contingency spans a wide range of possibilities that doesn’t involve direct participation in a war.

That military facilities in the Philippines could be used to help Southeast Asian residents in Taiwan evacuate from the island could be one of the scenarios. More controversially, radar facilities in the Philippines could provide intelligence to US troops in a conflict or facilitate the flow of logistics.

The most provocative of all is the prospect of using Philippine bases for the takeoff of US combat aircraft or even artillery assaults on Chinese ships. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said last year that the US can’t use its nation’s military bases for “offensive action” against China in case of a war over Taiwan.

That option is “both dangerous and unlikely,” according to Greg Poling, head of the Southeast Asia program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It would be a risk for the US too as intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance facilities might be taken out.”

–With assistance from Andreo Calonzo.

©2024 Bloomberg LP

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Holds Drills Philippines Tiny Island Taiwan


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