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Philippine officer-in-charge of the defense ministry Carlito Galvez said on March 2 that expanded US access to his country’s bases was not intended for aggression. Manila is concerned that it could be dragged into a war between the United States and China over Taiwan, but Galvez’s clarification – aimed at a domestic audience – is mere wishful thinking.
It is the tyranny of geography, as admitted last month by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. According to him, it is unlikely that the Philippines can avoid being pulled into a possible war in the Taiwan Strait given its proximity to the island.
The Pentagon’s new version of island-chain defense in the Western Pacific may prove inadequate to deter China if it is limited to denying the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) access to Japan’s southwestern islands.
To contain the Chinese forces within the East China Sea, the Strait of Taiwan and the northern section of the South China Sea with an “island-hopping” strategy, preventing them from establishing an air and naval blockade of Taiwan or attempting amphibious landing operations on Taiwanese soil, the Philippines must also actively be in the game.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced in January that by 2025 the Pentagon would scatter a 2,000-strong Marine Littoral Regiment in the Ryukyu islands chain, in Japan’s southernmost prefecture.
Marine troops will be lightly equipped and able to jump from island to island with missiles, drones, and sensors to keep Chinese air and naval forces at bay. Yonaguni, one of the islands in the area, lies just 125 kilometers from the Taiwanese east coast, forming with it a natural strait that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) should force to try to isolate Taiwan.
The positioning of US Marines and Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in this constellation of islands might deter China from attacking Taiwan from the north, but the western and southern sides of Taiwanese territory would remain vulnerable. The same goes for what former US Indo-Pacific Command Philip Davidson calls “lesser things,” such as Chinese operations against Taiwanese frontline islands (Kinmen and Matsu), which are too close to mainland China for access-denial operations.
Part of PLA’s exercises in response to the visit to Taipei in August by Nancy Pelosi, the then-Speaker of the US House of Representatives, was focused on isolating Taiwan from the Ryukyus.
At the time China conducted missile exercises northeast of Taiwan, in an area that overlaps Japan’s exclusive economic zone. It is worth noting that the Japanese SDF have bases in Yonaguni and Miyako, while the nearby island of Ishigaki will host air and anti-ship missile systems.
On the other hand, one of the seven “no-go areas” targeted by the Chinese during the August drills encroached on the Philippine exclusive economic zone in the Bashi Channel, between the southern tip of Taiwan and the Philippines’ Batan Islands. Controlling this passage means controlling transit from and to the South China Sea and the southern section of the Taiwan Strait.
Island-chain defense of Taiwan inevitably requires Manila’s involvement. On February 2 the US government secured access to four more Philippine military bases to boost its strategy to contain the PLA in the Bashi Channel and the South China Sea.
Access to outposts in the northern Philippines will allow small US units to check the movements of Chinese warships and air force planes in the Luzon Strait, south of Taiwan. To reach this goal America could also ask its treaty ally to deploy missiles in the region.
Coherently with the announced deployment to Japan’s southern islands, the US would do well to position another Marine Littoral Regiment on the Philippines’ Babuyanes and Batanes, which together include 34 islands, to keep the PLA Navy from passing the Bashi Channel.
Mavulis Island, the northernmost of the Batanes, is around 140 km from Taiwan’s southeast coast and 98 km from Orchid Island, administered by Taipei.
Some Chinese military analysts told me that resorting to distributed forces could be an effective strategy to thwart an attack by Beijing on proper Taiwan. However, as noted by naval strategist James R. Holmes, for this to be successful, land-based Marines across the first island chain should be supported by “a flotilla of winsome, low-cost, missile-armed surface combatants and diesel submarines.”
The problem for the US is that “distributed forces” rhymes with “distributed risks.” While Japan seems in line with the Pentagon’s plans, is the Philippines ready to risk China’s long-range bombardment of its northern islands for the defense of Taiwan?
It is doubtful that Marcos Jr. wants to challenge China. Like all other Southeast Asian leaders, he is seeking a balance between Washington and Beijing. The Philippines needs the US military help to oppose Chinese expansion, but at the same time looks at China for economic survivability. – Rappler.com
Emanuele Scimia is China and East Asia Editor at AsiaNews. He also contributes to the South China Morning Post and Eurasia Daily Monitor, covering foreign affairs and defense issues.