‘Playing With Fire’! China Warns Philippines Of Consequences For Military Expansion Near Taiwan

Amidst reports that the Philippines intends to increase its military personnel number on strategically significant islands it controls close to Taiwan, China has cautioned the country against “playing with fire.”

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Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, reiterated Beijing’s stance on February 8, saying Taiwan is “at the center of China’s core interests and represents an insurmountable red line and bottom line.”

The development came when tensions between China and the Philippines rose amid frequent clashes in the South China Sea.

Wenbin further stated that cordial discussions have characterized China-Philippines relations historically and that both nations should maintain respect for one another’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in addition to refraining from meddling in one another’s domestic affairs, Chinese CGTN reported.

The spokesperson referred to a recent announcement by Filipino Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro. Teodoro had ordered the military to increase the number of soldiers stationed at the isolated Batanes Island’s northernmost island to fortify the nation’s territorial defense. He also advocated for expanding the island’s infrastructure during his visit to the naval installations on the island.

Although the two countries remain marred in territorial disputes that have blown into frequent confrontations recently, China’s latest warning to Manila has Taiwan at its heart. The self-governing island state of Taiwan, which China views as a renegade province and has pledged to annex, is only 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Batanes Islands.

“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.

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.” Western commentators have noted that Manila has been increasingly standing up to China’s aggressive antics in the region.

Most nations, including the US and the Philippines, do not recognize Taiwan as an independent state. However, Manila knows that the Bashi Channel runs between Batanes and Taiwan, is a crucial choke point for ships traveling between the western Pacific and the disputed South China Sea, and is likely to be used by China in case of hostilities.

This is precisely why the Defense Secretary mentioned that injecting more troops into the region and expanding infrastructure was an effort to strengthen the country’s territorial defenses.

The Philippine Navy opened its naval detachment on Mavulis Island in Batanes in October 2023. This area is also reportedly considered a potential location for this year’s annual US-Philippines military exercises.

Not just that, it is speculated that the US is in talks with the Marcos government to develop a civilian port at Batanes Island. It is believed that a US port on the north-western island could eventually lead to a more subtle military involvement on the island. This could, in turn, stoke tensions between the Philippines and China further.

China’s response is indicative of the strategic value of this small island. There is an overarching concern that the Filipino islands that the US has access to, including the ones newly granted under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, could end up being used for launching operations against China as they lie close to two key passages. The Luzon Strait and the Bashi Channel provide access to the South China Sea and the Pacific. 

Philippines-based military analyst Miguel Miranda previously told EurAsian Times, “The Batanes region is a cluster of atolls and islets along the strategic Luzon Strait, a maritime passage and a vital conduit for undersea fiber optic cables.

“Unfortunately, it’s also a crossing point for the Chinese navy when they hold large-scale drills to intimidate Taiwan. In the event of open hostilities between China and Taiwan, there’s no doubt large naval forces will either try to travel or even launch combat operations in and around the Luzon Strait. Your readers can guess how this will be received in Manila.”

China’s frustration with the Philippines has persisted as the latter continues to court Taiwan. For instance, Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos sent Taiwanese President-elect Lai Ching-te a congratulatory note on his victory last month. Angered by the gesture, China summoned the Philippines’ ambassador to lodge its protest against the move.

Additionally, the burgeoning tensions between Beijing and Manila have also given rise to speculations that the newly started US-China dialogue will end up falling flat. Even as China expressed its antagonism to the Philippines, the Filipino forces began joint patrol drills with its “ironclad” ally, the United States.

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

US-Philippines Kick Off Another Round Of Joint Patrols

On February 9, the United States and the Philippines conducted their third combined maritime and aerial patrol in as many months off the coast of the Southeast Asian nation.

The latest air and naval patrols in the South China Sea occurred as Washington tried to fortify its defensive connections against China’s growing assertiveness.

Participating ships included the Philippine Navy’s BRP Gregorio Del Pilar (PS-15) and AW109 Helicopter (NH434), as well as the Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10), which an American MH-60S Sea Hawk from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 23 escorted.

The press statement released by the US Navy stated that through regular goodwill exercises at sea, the MCA showcases the long-standing alliance between the two armed forces and enhances combined capabilities in the developing maritime realm. With an eye on improving interoperability, the allied troops engaged in advanced planning and maritime communication operations while sailing together.

“We welcome any opportunity to conduct maritime activities with our allies. Sailing and operating together demonstrates our commitment to improving our interoperability and continued coordination with the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” said Capt. Sean Lewis, Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 7 commodore.

The Philippine military said the patrol was held in its exclusive economic zone without specifying the exact location. Washington, which has an agreement with Manila on mutual defense, has pledged to maintain open shipping lanes in the South China Sea, which is used to move goods worth trillions of dollars annually, and it has condemned China’s aggressive steps toward its partner.