Philippines Takes War To China’s Doorstep; Says US-Funded Batanes Port Near Taiwan Can Be Used During Conflict

As the Philippines strengthens its defense posture in Batanes Island, its navy has announced that the planned building of a US-funded port on the country’s northernmost island will be used during crises, including humanitarian and disaster relief.

A spokesman for the Philippine Navy in the West Philippine Sea, Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad, stated that the new port in the province would benefit Batanes residents as well as the armed forces.

“The Philippine Navy and the Armed Forces are always preparing for any eventuality across the spectrum of conflict from peace to crisis to wartime,” Trinidad told reporters at a press briefing on March 13.

The announcement comes days after Batanes Governor Marilou Cayco said there are plans to build a US-funded civilian port on the island near the crucial channel separating the Philippines from Taiwan.

The Bashi Channel, which runs between Batanes and Taiwan, is a crucial choke point for ships traveling between the western Pacific and the disputed South China Sea. China is likely to use it in case of hostilities.

During a Philippine Navy event, Governor Cayco revealed that the US Army will visit the province in late April to discuss the new facility in detail. The port on the western side of the island could serve as an alternative to the existing port in the capital town of Basco, which serves as the province’s main docking point.

According to Cayco, the strategy was created in collaboration with the Philippine military and is intended to provide refuge to Filipino laborers escaping to Taiwan in case of emergency.

Besides the development of a US-funded port, which has been in the headlines since August last year, Batanes Island is also witnessing a transformation at the behest of the Filipino military. Last month, for instance, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro directed the military to increase the number of troops stationed at the remote Batanes Island.

Additionally, the Defense Secretary called for the development of infrastructure on the island while he visited the naval installations there.

“The visit highlights the importance of fortifying our territorial defense capabilities to ensure our nation’s overall safety and integrity,” read the military statement. “To protect stakeholders such as fishermen and other maritime-related agencies for them to feel safer.” Teodoro also requested increased cooperation between the military and local government agencies.

In October 2023, the Philippine Navy established a naval outpost on Mavulis Island in Batanes. According to reports, Batanes is also considered a possible site for the annual US-Philippines ‘Balikatan’ military drills in April this year.

Trinidad said that the “exercises with foreign counterparts are also designed to improve our capability” and part of military drills are “exercise-related constructions to be able to assist foreign forces and our local forces.”

He further added that any new construction would “capacitate the local community that hosts the exercise,” emphasizing that “[it] could be for any eventuality during the crisis, typhoons, and humanitarian and disaster response.”

Taiwan At Heart Of New China-Philippines Tensions

The potential development of the port comes at a time when tensions are already riding high between the Philippines and China. It is believed that in case of a potential cross-strait conflict between China and Taiwan, Batanes will prove to be of significance given that it is located just 200 kilometers from Taiwan, which the Chinese have pledged to occupy.

The outreach of Batanes’ military in conjunction with its ally, the US, has not gone unheeded in China. China’s ambassador in Manila said that the Philippines was “playing with fire” by providing the US with increased access to its military bases. Beijing claimed that Washington is trying to meddle in its domestic matters concerning Taiwan.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, reiterated last month that Taiwan is “at the center of China’s core interests and represents an insurmountable red line and bottom line.” This statement was made after the Philippines announced the military expansion on Batanes Island.

The two countries remain mired in territorial disputes that have blown into frequent confrontations over the last few months.

For instance, the Philippines said that four navy personnel were hurt when the Chinese Coast Guard fired water cannons at one of its ships that were on a resupply mission in the disputed Second Thomas Shoal region last week. China, on its part, continues to assault Filipino vessels in what it views as its sovereign territory.

Philippines Navy holds a Flag Raising Ceremony atop the Mavulis Island peak in Batanes-Facebook.

Adding to this, the Filipino expansion near Taiwan has ticked the Chinese authorities off. China’s warning to Manila over Batanes has Taiwan at its heart. “The Philippine side should have a clear understanding of it, act prudently, and refrain from playing with fire on the issue of Taiwan to avoid being exploited by others and leading to their detriment,” Wang said in Beijing on February 8.

Irked by China’s warning, the Philippines Ministry of National Defense retaliated on February 10, saying, “China has no business warning the Philippines about what it does within its territory.”

China’s reaction demonstrates this small island’s strategic importance. Since the US has access to several Filipino islands, particularly those recently awarded under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, there is widespread fear that these strategic locations could be exploited to launch operations against China.

The Philippines, however, remains steadfast in its approach. Over the weekend, Vice-Admiral Toribio Adaci of the Philippine Navy said in a speech that the nation must strengthen its defenses against potential invasion or threats of conquest.