US war games are fraying nerves in the northern backwaters of the Philippines

Shortly before noon on Sunday, four Osprey tilt-rotor helicopters roared over a verdant ridge in Batan, on the northern island of the Philippines.

“They are coming!” shouted Eugene to his wife, Hilda, a local resident selling souvenirs in their tiny shop at the Tayid Lighthouse, calling her to witness the arrival of the military jet—and the global superpower race—on their sleepy Pacific coast.

Last weekend, Batan hosted exercises where Philippine and US troops defended against an aggressor, part of the allies’ biggest joint exercise in more than 30 years as they seek to strengthen military ties against an increasingly assertive China.

The island has long been a backwater, where locals catch huge blue marlin and yellowfin tuna from small wooden boats, and tourists wander the volcanic hills and historic temples of Basco.

But now that Taiwan, just 200 km north across the Bashi Channel, has become the focal point of the geopolitical struggle between China and the US, Batan is being reframed as “key terrain” that both sides could fight to capture if it leaves. to go to war.

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As part of the effort, hundreds of Marines and soldiers from the United States and the Philippines were deployed to a grassy plateau to practice securing the terrain against potential intruders. Below, a U.S. Army amphibious landing craft surveyed the coastline for the landing of Himars mobile missile systems, which have played a powerful role in the war in Ukraine, to keep enemy ships at bay.

This is the first time that Balikatan, the annual US-Philippines military exercise, will conduct maneuvers on the strategically important islands in northern Luzon. Last Friday and Saturday, the two militaries held similar airstrike exercises in the neighboring islands of Fuga and Calayan.

Map of the northern Philippines showing Basco, Batanes and the islands of the Luzon Strait

In the past, the Philippines has been less willing to demonstrate a will to defend its entire territory, said Maj. Gen. Joseph Ryan, commander of the US Army’s 25th Infantry Division. “But now there are more reasons.” I think it comes largely from the insidious nature of the People’s Republic of China,” he said.

“We are expanding our position to this island here in the South China Sea near Taiwan. Doing both shows that we want to help our allies and partners,” Ryan added. “This is a signal to the PRC that we are serious.”

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The expansion of the maneuvers to the northern islands is part of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s push to revive the Philippines’ alliance with the United States. Earlier this month, it gave US forces access to four more military bases in the Philippines under the bilateral Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, alarming Beijing for the move.

The Chinese ambassador to the Philippines described Marcos’ decision to include three bases near Taiwan as new EDCA sites as “lighting the fire.” Over the weekend, the Chinese foreign minister asked Marcos and his foreign minister to deepen the relationship between the two countries.

In the domestic politics of the Philippines, this compulsion to take sides has sparked heated debates, and some politicians have demanded that the government not allow US forces to place weapons on the bases in question or refuel aircraft there in the event of a conflict.

Map of new and existing EDCA sites in the Philippines

The residents of Batan watched the commotion with curiosity and uneasiness. “I was hoping they would come here and see how they train,” said Eugene, whose family owns the pasture around the lighthouse.

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Hilda added that she supports a stronger US military presence, especially in the north. “Of course, this exercise reminds us that trouble may be coming. But if there is trouble, we have to protect ourselves,” he said. “We are worried about China. Taiwan is a good country, a democracy, and we have a lot of Batan people working in the factories there, and we are worried about them.”

About 150,000 Filipinos work in Taiwan, and their safety is one of the government’s main concerns over a potential conflict over the country, which China views as its territory and has threatened with violence.

Even in mainland northern Luzon, locals wondered if they could be on the front lines. Rey Barba, a firefighter in the city of Santa Ana, home to Camilo Osias Naval Base, one of EDCA’s new sites, said some residents worry that a larger U.S. military presence could drag their country into a war that is not theirs. .

Dale, a Batan resident, next to his tricycle

Dale, resident of Batan © Kathrin Hille/FT

Others disagreed. “I think it’s necessary for the US military to help strengthen our armed forces,” said Michael, a fishmonger at the Santa Ana market. “It is necessary because of China.”

For many people in Bata, the problem is deeply personal. The indigenous people of the island are of the same origin as the Sea Tao people on Orchid Island, about 100 km north of the northernmost point of the Philippines, and share many words in their language.

“We’re in tune,” said Dale, a young Batan resident who drives tourists around on his tricycle. “Our government sometimes says that EDCA sites are good so the US military can help in typhoons or earthquakes. But I think it’s about China and Taiwan.”