The United States and the Philippines strengthen their military ties in the face of the Chinese threat

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The Philippines and the United States 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 potential war with China over Taiwan.

The United States and the Philippines will send 16,000 troops next year to participate in Balikatan, their major annual bilateral military exercise, said Col. Michael Logico, director of the Philippine Army’s Joint and Combined Training Center, which recently held a planning conference with its American counterparts.

“We will do a full combat test to operate together, 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 to be 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 some 300 this year.

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

The increased cooperation comes after China’s growing military activity around Taiwan destabilized senior Filipino officials and won their support to reinvigorate the country’s alliance with the United States, which was weakened when the president of the time, Rodrigo Duterte, attempted a pivot to China in 2016.

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

“We’ve had some tough times, but the fact is, it’s a critical, critical relationship, from our perspective,” the US president said. “I hope you feel the same.”

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

“You’re starting to see a consensus emerging within most Philippine governments that the Philippines needs to deepen the alliance with the United States,” Poling said.

Other U.S. allies have also worried about the risks a Chinese attack on Taiwan would pose to them. In recent years, Japan has intensified consultations, planning and exercises with the United States for such a scenario.

“We are an ally of the United States, we are in a strategic place. We are so close that if something 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 through the Philippines – such as the Bashi Channel in the north and the Sibutu Pass in the south – Bautista said the Philippines was “key ground” for US competition. China because of the control of the country could give each side a clear advantage over their opponent.

Bautista said marines used the shipping channels around the Philippines during World War II to gain critical access to naval battles.

“Either China or the United States will want to take over the Philippines so they can control choke points and access to Taiwan” in the event of a conflict, Bautista added. “For the United States, it is access to resupply Taiwan, for China, it prevents.”

The focus is on the Bashi Channel Islands, just 120 km from Taiwan at their northernmost point.

Lisa Curtis, an Indo-Pacific expert at the CNAS think tank in Washington, said Manila “worried it would get stuck amid growing competition between the United States and China,” but the new Marcos government seemed realistic. as to what Washington might ask for in the event. of a conflict in Taiwan.

“Washington would almost certainly consider Manila as staging ground for logistics support and US forces. That’s why it’s important for the United States and the Philippines to advance talks on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement,” Curtis said, referring to the 2014 bilateral agreement whose implementation has slowed considerably in recent years.

Last November, the two countries said they would explore additional sites where US forces would be allowed a rotating presence – which experts understood to mean that US forces could access bases on those islands.

Logico said a Chinese company’s attempt to take over Fuga Island in northern Luzon for a development project in 2019 – quickly halted by the military – prompted the armed forces to focus more on the North.

“The Chinese have no use for Fuga. This is really about Taiwan, denying us, and by extension the United States, the use of these islands,” Logico added.

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

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