US and Philippines increase military ties in the face of threats from China

The Philippines and the United States are strengthening military cooperation, including doubling the number of troops participating in joint exercises next year, as Manila begins to consider its role in a potential war with China over Taiwan. Loan.

Colonel Michael Logico, Director of the Philippine Army’s Joint and Combined Training Center, will next year send 16,000 forces to take part in Balikatan, their main annual bilateral military exercise.

“We will do a thorough check to work together, including in North Luzon” near the country’s maritime border with TaiwanLogico 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 during the year. coming, up from 300 this year.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Philippine Defense Secretary Jose Faustino Jr will meet on Thursday – the first time allied defense ministers have participated in the talks, according to two people familiar with the event. this.

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The increased cooperation comes after China’s increased military activity around Taiwan unsettled senior Philippine officials and won their support in forging the country’s alliance with the Philippines. America, which was already weakened when then-President Rodrigo Duterte tried to pivot to China in 2016.

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

“We’ve had some tough times, but the reality is it’s an important, important relationship, in our view,” the US president said. “I hope you feel the same way.”

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

“You are starting to see a consensus emerging in most of the Philippine government that the Philippines needs to deepen its alliance with the US,” Poling said.

Other US allies also worry about the risks that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would pose to them. In recent years, Japan has stepped up consultationsplan and exercise with the US for such a scenario.

“We are allies of the United States, we are in a strategic position. We are so close 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 the waterways linking the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean through the Philippines – such as the Bashi Channel to the north and the Sibutu Road to the south – Bautista said the Philippines is a “key terrain” for US-China rivalry. States because control of the country can give either side a distinct advantage over its opponent.

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

Bautista added: “China or the US will want to take over the Philippines so it can control the choke points and get access to Taiwan” in the event of a conflict. “For the US, it’s access to supplies to Taiwan, for China it’s blocking it.”

One focus is on the islands in the Bashi Channel, just 120 kilometers 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 caught in the middle of growing competition between the US and China” but the new government Marcos seems realistic about what Washington might ask in this case. about a Taiwan conflict.

“Washington will almost certainly see Manila as a hub for logistical support and American forces. That is why it is important for the United States and the Philippines to advance negotiations on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement,” said Curtis, referring to the 2014 bilateral agreement that implementation has slowed down considerably in recent years.

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

Logico says a Chinese company’s efforts won control of the island of Fuga in northern Luzon for a development project in 2019 – quickly thwarted by the military – prompting the armed forces to focus more on the north.

“The Chinese don’t use Fuga. It is really about Taiwan, to deny us, and by extension the United States, the use of those islands,” Logico added.

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

Follow Kathrin Hille and Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter

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