January 30, 2024
MANILA – The Armed Forces of the Philippines is looking at some of the Philippine islands facing Taiwan as potential venues for future “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder) drills, the largest military exercise between the Philippines and the United States.
Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom) chief Lt. Gen. Fernyl Buca inspected the military detachments on the uninhabited Mavulis Island and Basco town in Batanes province on Jan. 27 and Jan. 28, where he was joined by Balikatan exercise planners. These areas are part of the country’s northernmost islands and closest to Taiwan, a self-ruled island claimed by China.
Mavulis is located some 140 kilometers from Taiwan’s southern tip and is the Philippines’ northernmost island. Basco is the provincial capital and one of the four towns on the main island of Batan.
“It’s for advance planning for a possible proposed exercise area in future Balikatan (drills),” Buca told the Inquirer when asked about the presence of the Balikatan planners.
A separate statement by the Nolcom said Buca and his contingent, along with the exercise planners, checked the facilities “to ensure that the country’s defense outpost is equipped and prepared to safeguard the Batanes Island Group Area and secure and control Luzon Strait and other critical maritime areas.”
Mavulis overlooks the Bashi Channel, a strategic waterway that is part of the Luzon Strait and home to several undersea cables.
The Nolcom said the Luzon Strait, which covers the Balintang and Bashi Channels, is part of its jurisdiction, calling the waterway “a strategically important factor in maneuvering forces for strategic advantage where it is also considered a chokepoint for naval and air traffic.”
Operational procedures were also reviewed during the visit “with the aim of strengthening the defense posture in the northernmost island.”
Buca’s visit to Mavulis also “boosted the morale” of the 14-member team from the Philippine Marines and civilian active auxiliary posted at the detachment, the Nolcom said.
The detachment in Mavulis is “poised to play a pivotal role in securing the Philippine territory, sovereignty and sovereign rights in order to protect the nation’s maritime borders and interests,” it said.
Last year, Filipino and American troops participating in the Balikatan exercises trained in Batanes in order to defend the island from potential aggressors.
The planned activities included an air assault, a method of insertion through helicopters, to seize back a key terrain.
At the time, only three of 111 exercises for the Balikatan drills were carried out in Batanes. Last year’s iteration of the joint exercises was so far the largest to date with around 17,000 troops taking part.
Before the establishment of the Mavulis naval detachment in October last year, local fishermen were being harassed by Chinese fishermen poaching in the country’s fishing grounds and economic zone.
Last week, Ambassadors Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin of Denmark and Juha Markus Pyykko of Finland also visited the Mavulis naval detachment to “gain a better understanding of the Philippines’ security concerns and emphasize their countries’ committed support” for the “rules-based international order,” according to Commodore Francisco Tagamolila, commander of the Naval Forces Northern Luzon.
Analysts say Taiwan is a potential flashpoint in US-China relations, with Washington as the island’s most important backer.
Concerns are mounting that Beijing may soon invade Taipei and that Manila would get caught in the crossfire or get involved as a party of a US-led alliance.