US Rehearses War With China on Philippine Island South of Taiwan

April 25th, 2023 - by Dave DeCamp /

Drills on Batan Island Are Part of
The US-Philippine Balikatan Exercise

Dave DeCamp /

(April 24, 2023) — Hundreds of US Marines and US Army soldiers participated in military exercises on the Philippine island of Baton, just over 100 miles across the Bashi Channel from Taiwan.

The drills are part of the Balikatan Exercise, which is being touted as the largest-ever joint military exercise between the US and the Philippines. They come after the US inked a deal expanding its military presence in the Southeast Asian nation, all part of Washington’s plans to prepare for a future conflict with China.

This iteration of the Balikatan marked the first time the US and the Philippines brought the exercises to Manila’s northern islands. Maj. Gen. Joseph Ryan, commander of the US Army’s 25th Infantry Division, told Financial Times the Philippines was inclined to demonstrate defense of the island due to “the insidious nature of the People’s Republic of China.”

“We’re expanding our posture to this island here, on the South China Sea, near Taiwan. Doing both of those things, we’re demonstrating our will to help our allies and partners. This should be a signal to the PRC that we’re serious,” Ryan added.

Financial Times also spoke with locals who expressed concern about the drills. Some Filipinos are worried that the growing military relationship between the US and the Philippines could drag Manila into a war with China.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the American troops carried Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles during the drills, which took place in the town of Basco on Baton Island. A HIMARS rocket system was also set up on the opposite side of the island, which could be used to target ships hundreds of miles away.

On Island South of Taiwan,
US Prepares for Conflict With China

Alistar Gale / MSM News

BASCO, Philippines (April 24, 2023) — On a rocky, windswept island just over 100 miles south of Taiwan, US troops from the Marines and Army ran out of MV-22 Osprey aircraft with weapons, including Javelin and Stinger missile launchers, before setting up camp next to a field of watermelons.

On the opposite side of the island, a Himars rocket launcher was brought ashore on Monday from an amphibious landing craft, a system that could give US forces the ability to target ships up to a few hundred miles away.

The drills were part of the largest-ever annual military exercises between the US and the Philippines, which this year for the first time included a focus on the defense of the northern Philippines and preparations for conflict if China moves to take Taiwan through force.

The two-day exercises on Basco island show the importance of defending a major maritime transit point for both the Chinese and American militaries, known as the Bashi Channel.

“Whoever controls the channel has a very strategic chokepoint,” said retired Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla, a former deputy chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

The channel, about 70 miles wide and bordered by the southern tip of Taiwan and the cluster of islands that include Basco, provides the Chinese navy with access to the east coast of Taiwan and the Pacific, including for submarines from their main base at the southern island of Hainan. The Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong transited the channel earlier this month before conducting jet-fighter drills to the east of Taiwan.

The channel is also the most direct access point for any American forces sent to the Taiwan Strait from air and naval bases on Guam, as well as a key transit point for commercial shipping and subsea cables that provide communications links to a swath of Asia. Basco and other islands off the northern coast of the Philippines could be staging posts for any US military response in a conflict over Taiwan. The exercises also were conducted on two other islands off the northern coast of the Philippines.

An escalation of Chinese military activity around Taiwan, including the recent jet-fighter drills, have heightened concerns in the Philippines and other nearby countries about a war in the region. China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has pledged to take the self-governing island by force if necessary.

“We don’t know the Chinese mind-set. When we hear China might invade Taiwan, we are worried,” said Anthony Merina, a 66-year-old retired vegetable and pig farmer who came to watch the military drills on Basco, an outpost about the size of the island of Manhattan.

Later this week, the Himars system is scheduled to be fired to sink a decommissioned ship off the west coast of the Philippines at the conclusion of the annual Balikatan military exercises between the US and the Philippines, involving more than 17,500 troops.

Maj. Gen. Padilla said the exercise will send a signal that Chinese ships operating around southern Taiwan could be vulnerable to sinking, making it more difficult to launch any operation to encircle or invade the island. The Himars system has a maximum range that would allow it to hit targets in all of the Bashi Channel from Basco and other islands nearby.

Exercises by China’s military in April this year and August last year, which included deploying aircraft and ships and firing missiles around Taiwan, show that Beijing’s strategy is to try to cut off the island from outside support during any attempt to take control of it, military analysts say.

During the drills last year following the visit of former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, the Bashi Channel was one of six zones that China declared would be used by its military. Ballistic missiles fired by China landed in the sea just to the northwest of the channel.

Training activity by the Chinese military shows that it is sharpening its ability to try to prevent the US and other forces from accessing the Bashi Channel and surrounding sea in the event that it invades Taiwan, said Ridzwan Rahmat, an analyst at defense-information and analysis provider Jane’s.

Troops and materiel used in the US exercises on Basco and other islands in the northern Philippines came from local military bases that Manila has agreed to share with the US The agreement for base access was recently broadened to include four more sites, including three in the northern Philippines.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is scheduled to visit the US for a summit with President Biden on May 1, another sign of deepening diplomatic and military ties between Manila and Washington.

In a meeting with Mr. Marcos in Manila on Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang called for the Philippines not to pick sides and to uphold its commitment to strategic independence, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. Mr. Qin also said the Philippines should “properly handle Taiwan-related and maritime issues in line with the overall interests of regional peace and stability,” according to the Foreign Ministry.

In a separate meeting with Mr. Qin on Saturday, Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo said that Manila pursued an independent foreign policy and that it was concerned about tensions in the Taiwan Strait, according to the Philippines Foreign Ministry.

Around 200 troops from the Marines and Army took part in the exercises on Basco and the other islands, joined by some marines from the Philippines. The scenario was designed to show the US can support the defense of the Philippines and strike land and maritime targets from distance using the Himars system, US military officials said. It wasn’t fired on Basco or the other islands.

“It’s an incredibly capable weapons system, which I think is being very clearly demonstrated in Ukraine,” said Maj. Gen. Joseph Ryan, commanding officer of the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division, which sent around 100 troops to the Basco exercise.

Some local political leaders in the northern Philippines are wary of the increased US military presence, fearing that it could drag the country into a conflict with China over Taiwan. Rep. Ciriaco Gato Jr., the member of Congress for the province that includes Basco, said he welcomed the latest exercises because the northern Philippines would almost inevitably be drawn into any crisis over Taiwan.

He said the province was now working on contingency planning because a conflict could also result in large flows of refugees to the northern islands and some of the roughly 150,000 Filipinos who work in Taiwan, he said.

“We have to be prepared,” Mr. Gato said.

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