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Philippines to boost military presence in islands facing Taiwan

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Filipino soldiers take part in a flag raising ceremony on Mavulis Island during a trip of the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, i...

Filipino soldiers take part in a flag raising ceremony on Mavulis Island during a trip of the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, i...

MANILA, Feb 7 (Reuters) - The Philippines' defence chief has ordered the military to boost the number of troops stationed at the northernmost islands near Taiwan to fortify Manila's territorial defence capabilities.

Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro also called for the development of more structures on the remote Batanes islands, less than 200 km (125 miles) from Taiwan, during his visit to naval facilities there on Tuesday, the Philippine navy said.

"Starting 2024, the operational tempo for the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) will be higher," Teodoro said, according to a Philippine navy statement issued late Tuesday.

The Bashi Channel between those islands and Taiwan is considered a choke point for vessels moving between the western Pacific and the contested South China Sea. The Chinese military regularly sends ships and aircraft through the channel, Taiwan's defence ministry has said.

In November, the militaries of the Philippines and the United States launched joint patrols off the waters of the Philippines' northernmost point.

Batanes is the "spearhead of the Philippines as far as the northern baseline is concerned", said Teodoro, who was accompanied by the AFP and Navy chiefs during his visit.

Teodoro's visit "signifies a pivotal moment in our nation's commitment to territorial defence and national security", the Philippine navy said.

Reuters reported in August that the U.S. military was in talks to develop a civilian port in Batanes, a move that would boost American access to strategically located islands facing Taiwan.

The Philippines in 2023 almost doubled the number of its military bases that U.S. forces can access, including three facing Taiwan. China, which claims democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory, has said those moves were "stoking the fire" of regional tensions.

Batanes served as one of the training sites during last year's joint military exercises, known as Balikatan, which involved more than 17,000 Filipino and American troops, making it the biggest ever edition of the annual military drills.