US and Philippines increase military ties over China threat

The Philippines and the US are stepping up military cooperation, including doubling the number of troops involved in joint exercises next year, as Manila begins to consider its role in a possible war with China over Taiwan.

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

“We will conduct a full combat test for cooperation, including in northern Luzon,” near the country’s maritime border with Taiwan, Logico said in an interview with the Financial Times.

At the annual bilateral defense talks hosted by the US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii next week, military leaders will discuss more than 500 bilateral activities for the coming year, up from about 300 this year.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Philippine Defense Secretary Jose Faustino Jr. will meet Thursday — the first time allied defense secretaries have attended the talks, according to two people familiar with the event.


The increased cooperation comes after China’s escalating military activity around Taiwan unsettled senior Filipino officials, winning their support for rekindling the country’s alliance with the US, which was weakened when then-President Rodrigo Duterte attempted to defect to China in 2016 .

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

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

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

“A consensus is beginning to emerge in most Philippine governments that the Philippines needs to deepen the alliance with the US,” Poling said.

Other US allies are also concerned about the risks a Chinese attack on Taiwan would pose to them. In recent years, Japan has intensified consultations, planning and exercises with the US for such a scenario.

“We are a US ally, we are in a strategic place. We’re so close that if something happens in Taiwan, we’ll be involved,” said Gen. Emmanuel Bautista, former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Bautista pointed to waterways connecting the South China Sea and the Pacific through the Philippines — like the Bashi Canal to the north and the Sibutu Passage to the south — and said the Philippines is “key terrain” for the Philippines because of control of the country Competition between the US and China could give each side a distinct advantage over their opponent.

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Bautista said that during World War II, navies used sea canals around the Philippines to gain critical access for naval battles.

“Either China or the US will want to take the Philippines in order to be able to control the bottlenecks and access to Taiwan in case of a conflict,” added Bautista. “For the US, it’s a gateway to supply Taiwan, for China, to prevent it.”

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

Lisa Curtis, an Indo-Pacific expert at the CNAS think tank in Washington, said Manila was “cautious about getting bogged down in the midst of mounting US-China competition,” but the new Marcos administration seemed realistic about what Washington said in which case could require a Taiwan conflict.

“Washington would almost certainly view Manila as a base for logistical support and US forces. That’s why it’s important for the US and the Philippines to advance talks on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement,” Curtis said, referring to the 2014 bilateral agreement, whose implementation has slowed significantly in recent years.

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Last November, the two countries said they would explore additional locations where US forces would be given a rotational presence – which experts understood meant US forces could be given access to bases on those islands.

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

“The Chinese have no use for fuga. It’s really about Taiwan denying us, and by extension the US, the use of these islands,” Logico added.

Several current and former Philippine military officials have said the Philippines is the most convenient corridor for US forces to supply Taiwan with munitions in wartime. According to two people in Manila familiar with the situation, Philippine and US forces have begun discussing options for doing so.

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