Philippines adopts new defense strategy to protect territorial waters 

Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr.’s on March 9 ordered an increase in personnel at the northernmost island province of Batanes, which is facing Taiwan about 200 km away, as part of the Department of National Defense’s Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept (CADC), which aims to address vulnerabilities and enhance capability to defend national interests. A total of 126 naval reservist, which formed the initial deployment, will be deployed to Batanes. Teodoro also called for the construction of more structures on Batanes.

The main objective of CADC is to develop the country’s capability to protect its entire territory, including its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to ensure that the next generation of Filipinos will be able to benefit from the country’s natural resources. CADC includes the acquisition of naval ships and radar systems designed for archipelagic defense capabilities and other highly needed armaments, with the support of allies, to protect the Philippine territory from malevolent foreign incursions.

This announcement angered and hurt the feelings of China, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) accused the Philippines of “playing with fire” on the Taiwan issue. The CCP claims Taiwan, an independent country it has never control before, as part of China. However, National Defense spokesperson Arsenio Andolong said the CCP has no authority to tell the Philippines what it can or cannot do within its own sovereignty territory. 

Additionally, the CCP also claims nearly the entire South China Sea (known in the Philippines as West Philippine Sea) and has repeatedly utilized gray zone tactics involving coast guards and fishing vessels to aggressively stake this claim. The Bashi Channel between Taiwan and Batanes is considered a choke point for ships moving between the western Pacific and the contested South China Sea. The Chinese military regularly sends ships and aircraft through the channel.

Earlier, Teodoro said the CADC will allow the protection and to guarantee “Philippine nationals, Philippine corporations, and those authorized by the Philippine government the unimpeded and peaceful exploration and exploitation of all natural resources within our EEZ and other areas we have jurisdiction.” He also stated that the Philippines cannot tolerate violations of its territorial integrity by anyone.

Philippine Navy flag-officer-in-command Vice Admiral Toribio Adaci Jr., during the integration rites for the naval reservists on March 9, said the reservists serve as force multipliers to boost maritime security and additionally, also assist in emergencies and calamities as needed. They can also provide support during training exercises and operational deployments. He added that the reservists bring “valuable civilian skills and knowledge to the naval organization”.

Bashi Channel. Photo credit: iStock/ PeterHermesFurian

In April 2023, the Philippines allowed the U.S. access to four more military bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), of which three bases, two in Cagayan and another in Isabela, are facing Taiwan. In November, both countries launched joint patrols off the waters of the Philippines’ northernmost point.

First Island Chain

The Philippines is also an important part of the First Island Chain, a geographical and geopolitical concept referring to a series of islands, archipelagos, and land masses stretching from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, to the Philippines. The primary purpose of the First Island Chain is to serve as a natural barrier or defensive line to potentially block or limit China’s access to the Pacific Ocean and contain its maritime expansion.

By controlling the First Island Chain, countries in the region, along with external powers like the U.S., aim to shape China’s strategic behavior, deter potential aggression, and maintain freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region. The presence of U.S. military bases and alliances with countries along the First Island Chain provides a significant strategic advantage in managing China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Taiwan Strait.

In recent years, China has sought to challenge the strategic significance of the First Island Chain through military modernization efforts, construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, and assertive actions in disputed maritime territories. The concept of the First Island Chain remains a key component of regional security dynamics in the Indo-Pacific, shaping the strategic calculations of countries in the region and influencing the balance of power in East Asia.

First Island Chain. Photo credit: iStock/ Andrea Nicolini 

The South China Sea has long been a hotbed of tensions due to conflicting territorial claims by multiple countries, most notably China. With its expansive claims and aggressive actions, China has been flexing muscles in the region, building artificial islands, militarizing outposts, and asserting dominance over critical sea lanes. These actions have not gone unnoticed by neighboring countries, particularly the Philippines, which has its own territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Upholding rules-based international order

Given the Philippines’ relatively smaller military capabilities compared to China, aligning with a powerful ally like the U.S. makes strategic sense. The U.S. has long been a key security partner for the Philippines, with a mutual defense treaty dating back to 1951. By bolstering this alliance and deepening defense cooperation, the Philippines can enhance its defense capabilities and deter aggression from China in the region.

Moreover, aligning with the U.S. sends a clear message to China that aggressive actions will not go unchallenged. The presence of the U.S. Navy in the region serves as a strong deterrent against any further escalations by China, bolstering regional stability and upholding the rules-based international order. The Philippines’ decision to collaborate with the U.S. in countering China’s aggressiveness underscores the importance of upholding international norms and ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Economically, aligning with the U.S. also offers significant benefits for the Philippines. The U.S. is a major trading partner and source of foreign direct investment for the Philippines, providing economic stability and opportunities for growth. Strengthening ties with the U.S. can open up new avenues for trade and investment, helping to boost the Philippine economy and enhance its overall prosperity.

Furthermore, aligning with the U.S. in countering China is not just a matter of security and economics but also a question of values and principles. The U.S. and the Philippines share a commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, values that are increasingly under threat in the face of China’s authoritarian regime. By aligning with the U.S., the Philippines reaffirms its commitment to these shared values and strengthens its position as a responsible member of the international community.

Top photo credit: iStock/ Alessandro Biascioli. Generic photo of a Filipina mother and her daughter.

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