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US Bolstering Philippines Amid Increasing Assertiveness by China

FILE - Filipino Marines maneuver their vehicle during an annual U.S.-Philippines joint military exercise on the beaches of Claveria, Cagayan province, Philippines, March 31, 2022. Maneuvers are planned off the west coast of the island of Palawan in April.
FILE - Filipino Marines maneuver their vehicle during an annual U.S.-Philippines joint military exercise on the beaches of Claveria, Cagayan province, Philippines, March 31, 2022. Maneuvers are planned off the west coast of the island of Palawan in April.

The U.S. and Philippines will for the first time venture outside Manila’s territorial waters when they begin joint annual combat drills in April, a Philippines government spokesman said Thursday.

Colonel Michael Logico said elements of the Balikatan 2024 drills would be conducted about 22 kilometers (more than 12 nautical miles) off the west coast of Palawan, an island in the archipelago nation that faces a troubled region of the South China Sea.

Chinese ships this month blocked Philippine ships near the Second Thomas Shoal, a reef about 200 kilometers (120 miles) off Palawan that both sides claim.

“The message that we want to send is that we are serious about defending our territory and we have allies,” Logico said at a news conference, according to Philippine media.

Beijing claims most of the South China Sea as its own, putting it in conflict with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, all of which border the sea. An international tribunal at The Hague has rejected China's claim.

Blinken visit

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the Philippines this week to bolster relations between the two countries and underscore Washington’s commitment to Manila in the face of an increasingly assertive China.

Blinken on Tuesday cited China’s “repeated violations of international law and the rights of the Philippines: water cannons, blocking maneuvers, close shadowing, [and] other dangerous operations.”

China has been building up its military presence in the South China Sea by building on reefs, including the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which it effectively seized from the Philippines in 2012.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s government has defiantly sought to assert sovereignty over disputed areas by supplying troops and escorting fishing boats. He told Bloomberg TV on Tuesday that he was not trying to start a conflict but “since the threat has grown, we must do more to defend our territory.”

The Philippines announced last week that it would build a new port with U.S. funding on its northern Batanes Islands, 200 kilometers (about 124 miles) from Taiwan.

While the port is expected to be for civilian use, analysts say it could also be used for military purposes and play an important role in defense — and not only for the Philippines.

Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor of politics at Australia’s University of New South Wales School of Humanities and Social Sciences, emailed VOA: "U.S. and Filipino forces in the northern Philippines would be able to monitor and strike Chinese forces in the event a conflict over Taiwan broke out."

Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province that must one day reunite with mainland China, by force if necessary, while the U.S. has vowed to defend Taiwan’s right to self-rule.

But the U.S. mainland is separated from the Taiwan Strait by about 11,000 kilometers (6,000 nautical miles), while mainland China is roughly 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the democratic island.

'Positive impact' for Taiwan

Although the U.S. has military bases that are closer to Taiwan in Hawaii, about 8,150 kilometers (4,400 nautical miles); Guam, about 2,780 kilometers (1,500 nautical miles); and Okinawa, about 740 kilometers (400 nautical miles), analysts say the closer its military assets are to Taiwan, the faster they can respond and resupply in the event of a Chinese attack.

"While the Philippines may not change the situation in the Taiwan Strait, the greater interest in the Philippines by Washington and Tokyo will have a positive impact on Taiwan's security,” said Thomas J. Shattuck, the senior program manager at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, in an email to VOA.

“It will increase U.S. assets in Taiwan's south," Shattuck said. "It will make it harder for China to dominate in the 'southern theater' of a possible Taiwan conflict. But again, there is more work to be done in this regard."

Marcos last year said the U.S. military would be allowed to use four new military bases in the Philippines, in addition to five where they are already allowed, for training, building infrastructure and pre-positioning supplies, though the access would not be permanent.

Although many countries in the Indo-Pacific region receive U.S. military assistance, the Philippines receives the most. From 2015 to 2022, Manila received more than $1.14 billion worth of aircraft, armored vehicles, small arms, equipment and training, $475 million of it in aid.

Blinken's trip to the Philippines marks the second time a senior U.S. Cabinet official has visited the nation this month. On March 11, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo announced fresh investments from U.S. firms of more than $1 billion in the archipelago nation.

Despite China’s more assertive moves in the South China Sea, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Gregory Poling argues Beijing has lost momentum. Poling, who is senior fellow and director of CSIS’s Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, notes that since 2022, Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines have stopped giving ground to China.

At the same time, he writes in Eurasia Review, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have resumed development of infrastructure and oil and gas fields in the disputed region, despite China's objections.

China’s provocative moves are one of the main topics expected to be on the agenda in April when President Joe Biden hosts a historic summit with Marcos and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.