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ANALYSIS/Philippine port expansion would help Taiwan in cross-strait conflict: Experts

03/13/2024 09:03 PM
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Photo courtesy of the Philippine Navy
Photo courtesy of the Philippine Navy

Taipei, March 13 (CNA) A United States-funded project to expand a Philippine civilian port facing a strategically crucial channel could assist U.S. allies in the Pacific, including Taiwan, in the event of a conflict with China, military experts have said.

Kyodo News on March 9 reported that work to expand the port facing the Bashi Channel, a project first announced in 2023, was underway.

The report cited Governor of Batanes Marilou Cayco as saying at a Philippine Navy event, also on March 9, that the plan, developed in coordination with the Philippine military, aimed to help Filipinos leave Taiwan in the event of a cross-strait crisis.

The U.S. Army is set to arrive in late April to further discuss the new facility, the report quoted Cayco as saying.

Batanes is the northernmost province of the Philippines. One of its islands, Mavudis, is closest to Taiwan, located just 99 kilometers from Lanyu and about 142 km from Eluanbi, Taiwan's southernmost tip.

Su Tzu-yun (蘇紫雲), a research fellow at Taiwan's Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR), told CNA Tuesday that despite the port's stated function, it is really a preventative move by the U.S. to bolster its crisis management ability.

The planned Philippine port does not signal an increased risk of war between Taiwan and China but is rather part of the U.S. deterrence strategy targeting China.

Guermantes Lailari, a visiting researcher at the INDSR, agreed that the expansion of the port was a "defensive act" by the U.S. and the Philippines, and did not necessarily signal a rising risk of a cross-strait conflict.

The port could function as a commercial port but it could also be used for military purposes if needed, explained Lailari, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel. He added that the Philippines wanted to expand the port, which is "very small," so it can handle larger ships.

On the strategic significance of the port's expansion, Su said it would enable the U.S. to blockade People's Liberation Army (PLA) forces from reaching waters east of Taiwan proper through the Bashi Channel.

According to Su, the port also relates to Taiwan and Japan's strategy of blocking China from crossing the so-called First Island Chain, a string of islands that run from the Japanese archipelago, through Taiwan, the Philippines and on to Borneo, Indonesia.

The Philippines has also deployed BrahMos anti-ship missiles in Basco on Batan Island. This move, along with Japan deploying anti-ship missile systems in the Miyako Strait on Yonaguni and Miyako islands, and Taiwan's Hsiung Feng anti-ship missiles, forms a north-south blockade against China, Su explained.

Lailari said the port was part of a grand strategy covering the northern and southern parts of Taiwan, referencing the deployments of Japan Self Defense Forces and their anti-ship capabilities near the Senkaku Islands in the north.

The Batanes port is strategic given its proximity to Taiwan and the fact that U.S. forces can operate from it, he said.

In addition, under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the United States and the Philippines, which was signed in 2014, the U.S. can also access nine other sites, he said.

If China invaded Taiwan, the PLA would need to send forces through the Bashi Strait to the east of the country to stop incoming support from the U.S. and Taiwan's other allies, he said.

The port's location could be great for intelligence collection and monitoring PLA ship and aircraft movements, for example, the Philippines and its allies could set up a radar site, he explained.

In the future, should there be a need for power projection from the Philippines in support of Taiwan, Batanes would also be an ideal location from which forces, equipment, or weapons could be sent, he said.

The port expansion shows that the U.S. is helping Taiwan's neighbors prepare for conflict, he said.

"By increasing defense, you're also increasing deterrence," he said.

"This sends a message to Communist China that the U.S. is serious. And hopefully, [Chinese President] Xi Jinping (習近平) will decide not to do anything," he said.

(By Sean Lin)

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