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Manila angers China by increasing military presence on islands near Taiwan

Tensions rise as Philippines strengthens defense capabilities, conducts exercises with foreign allies in Batanes Province

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Philippine sailors on the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar observe littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords, Feb. 9. (US Indopacom photo)

Philippine sailors on the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar observe littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords, Feb. 9. (US Indopacom photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Tensions between Manila and Beijing are on the rise after reports that the Philippines has plans to bolster its military presence in its northernmost province of Batanes, located only 190 km south of Taiwan in the Bashi Channel.

On Friday (Feb. 9), the U.S. and the Philippines conducted naval exercises in the region, which demonstrate the ongoing efforts to boost cooperation between the two militaries, per a press release. The exercises come only days after Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro called for the Armed Forces of the Philippines to bolster defense capabilities and increase troops in Batanes Province, reported Reuters.

Following Teodoro’s announcement, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin (汪文斌) on Feb. 8 warned that Manila should “avoid playing with fire” by strengthening its defensive posture in a region so close to Taiwan. The following day Chinese military announced it was conducting regular patrols in waters of the South China Sea claimed by both Manila and Beijing.

In response to Wang’s comments, the Philippines’ Department of National Defense Spokesperson Arsenio Andolong said on Saturday (Feb. 10) that “China has no business warning the Philippines about what it does within its territory.” He added that remarks like those of Wang and China’s provocative actions in the region are the primary reasons why Filipino people do not trust China, per the Inquirer.

The ongoing diplomatic row between Manila and Beijing follows months of increasing tensions and hostile encounters in the South China Sea, particularly over Philippine troops stationed on the Scarborough Shoal.

Tensions are only likely to increase since Batanes Province is set to host the 2024 Balikatan military exercises this year, which are typically held each Spring. The Balikatan exercises are the largest annual joint military exercises held by the Philippines and the U.S., and since 2014 a contingent from the Australian Defence Forces has also joined.

Manila angers China by increasing military presence on islands near Taiwan
U.S. and Philippine troops in front of Patriot missile battery at 2023 Balikatan exercises. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

On Saturday (Feb. 10), it was reported that the French Navy is planning to dispatch a contingent to join several of the exercises, according to the Director of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Joint and Combined Training Center. The 2024 Balikatan exercises are expected to be larger than the 2023 iteration, which is the largest to date with over 17,600 service personnel from the Philippines, the U.S., and Australia, reported Naval News.

In the event of a potential blockade or invasion of Taiwan by China, the Bashi Channel and the Batanes islands could serve as critical staging points for the U.S. military or other allies to provide material support and military aid to Taiwan.

Manila angers China by increasing military presence on islands near Taiwan
U.S. and Philippine troops ahead of live fire exercise at 2019 Balikatan exercises. (Wikimedia Commons photo)