Note this statement from the Philippines Department of National Defence issued on Saturday. It said, “The Defence Department stresses that Batanes is Philippine territory and China has no business warning about what it does within its territory.”
Batanes is an island chain just 200 km from Taiwan, which raises red flags in China. But Batanes sits in the middle of the Luzon Strait, which lies south of Taiwan. It is of strategic value to China because in the event of a confrontation over Taiwan, it could become a choke point, restricting or even denying Chinese naval forces seeking to move from the West Philippine Sea to the South China Sea where Taiwan sits. It also limits China’s freedom of manoeuvre if it sought to target Taiwan’s eastern shores.
It doesn’t help that the Philippine Defence Ministry sees the northern-most island in the Batanes chain, called Mavulis, as a strategic territory to be defended at all costs, and has ordered extra troops to be deployed there. Manila now plans to expand the naval infrastructure on the island, which was announced when the Defence Secretary visited it recently.
Manila’s move appears to have infuriated Beijing. It has deepened its insecurities given that the Luzon Strait would also give US naval forces access to the South China Sea. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin warned that Taiwan “was at the centre of China’s core interests and represents an insurmountable red line and bottom line”.
Beijing is closely monitoring Manila’s plans to beef up its military where it could project power. A Defence Ministry statement issued in Manila said clearly, “We are pursuing an Archipelagic Defence Concept to address our vulnerabilities and enhance our capability to defend our national interest through long term plans which include upgrades in our facilities and deployment of personnel.”
The Philippines has no claim on Taiwan and has never made any. But in the reign of Xi Jinping, for all the display of muscle especially towards small neighbouring island states, China’s insecurities seem to be deepening.