Philippines beefs up northernmost defences amid China tensions

Batanes could find itself on the doorstep of war should the South China Sea dispute escalate or China invade Taiwan.

A view of the two storey barracks building on Mavulis. There are steep cliffs behind. A sign to the left says 'Welcome aboard Mavulis Island'
The two-storey barracks building has a mess hall and rooms for sleeping, storage and exercise, but it is not yet furnished. [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]
The two-storey barracks building has a mess hall and rooms for sleeping, storage and exercise, but it is not yet furnished [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

This is the first in a two-part series from the Philippines's most northerly province.

Mavulis Island, Philippines The military detachment on the Philippines’s northernmost island faces northwest, towards the setting sun – and the country’s biggest potential adversary.

The island of Mavulis was uninhabited until 2016, when the Philippine military planted a flagpole at its highest point and started building a fisherman’s shelter.

Now, about 15 soldiers are deployed in rotation on the rocky outpost, amid increasing tension with Beijing over the disputed South China Sea and Beijing’s growing assertiveness towards Taiwan - which lies just 142km (88 miles) away and whose lights flicker in the distance during the night.

In February, Philippine Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro visited Mavulis and pledged further improvements to military positions in Batanes, the province that includes the island, which he called the “spearhead of the Philippines”.

With the Philippines's lightly-funded military reliant on only basic equipment and technology to fortify the island, the United States is providing crucial assistance.

Its military will begin constructing a new warehouse, a military outpost and port improvements this month on the islands of Batan and Itbayat, according to several sources.

The two countries will also hold joint military exercises on Batan and, for the first time, on Itbayat, the country’s northernmost municipality, as part of the annual Balikatan drills, which get under way on April 22.

The Philippines has turned towards its longstanding military alliance with the US after multiple confrontations with China in the waters of the South China Sea.

Manila and Washington have a mutual defence treaty and the US is concerned not only about the South China Sea, a major international trading route, but also Taiwan, which is claimed by Beijing.

“We need to upgrade our defence posture,” Rodrigo Lutao, public information officer for the army’s Northern Luzon Command, which also covers Batanes, told Al Jazeera.

“We’ve realised the islands of Batanes, especially Mavulis, are strategic areas where we can place our forces and defence materials.”

A fishing boat making its way to Mavulis. There are people in life vests towards the bow and a roof over some of the deck. The boat is listing to one side. A mountainous island can be seen ib the distance
Soldiers stationed on Mavulis travel up to 10 hours on rented fishing boats to reach the island. [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]
Soldiers stationed on Mavulis travel up to 10 hours on rented fishing boats to reach the island. [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

Batanes, an island province of about 19,000 mostly Indigenous residents located halfway between Taiwan and the northern coast of Luzon, consists of three permanently inhabited islands and seven others, including Mavulis.

“Batanes will play a strong buffer zone in case of any eventuality in Taiwan,” said Chester Cabalza, the founder of the Manila-based think tank International Development and Security Cooperation. “It is like building a maritime fortress against foreign aggressors.”

Chinese opposition

Beijing has stridently opposed every improvement on Batanes, which falls within some versions of its nine-dash line.

China has long used the line to suggest its expansive claim to the South China Sea can be traced back centuries, and has ignored a 2016 international court ruling that it had no legal basis.

Recently, Beijing has begun diplomatic efforts to chip away at ties between Batanes’s provincial government and the US.

In March, Batanes Governor Marilou Cayco announced the US would help construct a civilian port on Batan Island, which would help accommodate Filipinos fleeing Taiwan in the event of a conflict. The planned port would also “boost strategic capabilities” for the Philippine military, Cabalza said.

Just more than a week later, Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian visited Cayco in Batanes and donated computers to Batanes State College.

Four days after that, Cayco told the Reuters news agency that the US would not be helping with the port after all and the Philippines would handle the project alone.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila released a statement on the same day, saying that “any attempt to implicate the Taiwan question in the maritime disputes between China and the Philippines is dangerous”.

The offices of Cayco and Huang did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.

Two soldiers playing basketball on the Mavulis helipad. One is shooting at the basket. The sea is behind. And looks calm.
Mavulis is a sleepy place now and soldiers play basketball on the helipad to pass the time [Nick Apsinwall/Al Jazeera]

For his part, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has been talking tough.

After the latest incident with China at the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea - with the Philippines accusing China of firing water cannon at its boats - he promised to take as-yet-unspecified "proportionate and reasonable countermeasures” and this week, he will be in Washington, DC for a trilateral summit with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

A senior official in the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said the summit was not targeted at any specific country, although all three have expressed concern about China. “We can expect an alignment of views among the three countries on the recent incidents,” Acting Deputy Undersecretary Hans Mohaimin Siriban told reporters on Friday.

If Batanes is the country’s northern spearhead, Mavulis is the true tip of that spear.

But merely reaching the island is difficult.

There are two small helipads – one damaged by a recent storm – which are only used when top officials and foreign visitors visit the island, usually transported in Black Hawk helicopters.

Chartering fishing boats

For the Marines and volunteer reserves who rotate on and off Mavulis, getting there means a rough, loud and smelly ride on a small boat rented from local fishermen, which takes as long as 10 hours from Basco.

That is when the weather is good. When conditions are bad, they do not go at all.

The small port at Mavulis was mostly destroyed by a typhoon, so boats cannot dock there for long.

Soldiers toss supplies from the boat to land, then climb over jagged rocks and dodge crashing waves to get back to the barracks.

“We admit that our government is unable to procure the necessary transportation,” Lutao said. “But we cannot be immobilised because of that predicament.”

Soldiers hanging out on Mavulis. Their quarters are to the left. One is lying in a hammock. Others are tending the garden or looking at their phones.
Soldiers and volunteers grow vegetables, raise chickens and use the island’s Starlink internet connection. [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]
Soldiers and volunteers grow vegetables, raise chickens and use the island’s Starlink internet connection. [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

The Marines have a wishlist of upgrades, including at least one speedboat of their own and more effective monitoring equipment. But it is already a challenge to maintain the existing infrastructure on Mavulis.

A desalination plant was installed in 2021 but stopped working six months later and soldiers have been forced to haul drinking water onto the island since. The small solar power station often malfunctions, plunging the detachment into darkness.

The island’s rotating defence crew is armed with rifles but no heavy weaponry and would need support if they were attacked.

“[We’d] like to bring some machinery and heavy equipment but we cannot transport it,” said Dennis Estrella, a wing commander for the Philippine Air Force.

In March, a group of US Marines visited Mavulis to evaluate the possibility of landing a V-22 Osprey helicopter on the island during April’s joint military exercises, but quickly concluded its helipad was too small.

Mavulis's strategic position gives Manila a perch over the Bashi Channel, which runs south of Taiwan and is a shipping superhighway.

The Marines use an automatic identification system, designed for ships at sea to broadcast their position and communicate with vessels in the channel.

Their capability is much, much higher compared to ours.

by Rodrigo Lutao, Northern Luzon Command

At the moment, it is used mostly to challenge Taiwanese fishing vessels that stray too deep into Philippine waters but Taiwan regularly accuses China of sending ships and aircraft through the channel.

Chinese research vessels have strayed into Philippine waters near Mavulis in the past and two such vessels were recently spotted lurking near the Philippine Rise, to the east of the northern island of Luzon.

With the Chinese Coast Guard hindering Philippine maritime operations in contested parts of the South China Sea, notably around Second Thomas Shoal where a contingent of sailors live on board the rusting Sierra Madre warship, Lutao says Mavulis is badly in need of a dedicated radar system. With jamming capabilities, it would help the Philippines respond more effectively to potential incursions by the Chinese Coast Guard.

“We’ve observed that their capability is much, much higher compared to ours,” Lutao said.

Upgrades on the way

The US is currently studying the possibility of installing radar on Mavulis that could reach as far as Japan, a military source said.

The Washington-backed improvements would affect not only Mavulis but the province’s other islands.

Soldiers and volunteer reservists clamber over jagged rocks to get ashore on Mavulis. The sea is behind them. The going looks rough.
Arriving soldiers clamber over rocks to get to their outpost on Mavulis [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]
Arriving soldiers clamber over rocks to get to their outpost on Mavulis [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

Last year, the US and the Philippines simulated retaking Batan Island from a hostile foreign power. They plan to do the same this year in Itbayat, according to two military sources.

The 2023 exercises also saw the US attempt to land a HIMARS missile launcher in Basco, another outpost in the island chain, but found its main seaport could not accommodate its weight.

US military engineers will begin upgrading that port this month, which could potentially allow landing craft utility ships to dock there and unload heavier military equipment, the sources said.

The military is also preparing to open a new operating base in Mahatao, on the west of Batan Island, with a functional helipad and room for about 30 Navy and Marines.

The new civilian port, which Cayco recently said the US would not be involved in constructing, will be located on the east of the island, according to a Marines source, giving boats another option on the frequent occasions when seas at the west-facing port are too rough.

The combined upgrades would be part of any plan to accommodate the estimated 160,000 Filipinos in Taiwan – most of whom work in manufacturing, fisheries, or as caregivers – should they have to flee a conflict there.

Lutao said the military plans to evacuate Filipinos directly to the northern provinces of Ilocos and Cagayan on the mainland of Luzon, due to the scarcity of resources on Batanes. “It would be better if they can travel a bit longer,” he said.

Soldiers prepare a fish to make kinilaw. here are three of them squatted around it. One man is standing behind. The fish is quite large.
Soldiers eat fresh fish that they catch off the island, often turning it into kinilaw, a Filipino dish similar to ceviche [Nick Aspinwall/Al Jazeera]

Batanes already suffers frequent typhoons and earthquakes, and the province would use its experience responding to natural disasters should it find itself on the doorstep of war.

“The worst thing that could happen is if China will pursue its intent to invade Taiwan,” Lutao said. “It would be almost the same as a disaster.”

Back on Mavulis, the flagpole on top of the island’s tallest hill stands barren after the last Philippine flag was torn down by the wind.

Soldiers will soon move into a new, two-storey building and since last year, they have been able to access the internet via Starlink.

They pass the time by growing vegetables, raising chickens and catching coconut crabs, which the reservists sell to people on the other islands of Batanes.

As fireflies dart through the air and faraway fishing boats ply their trade in the distance, the soldiers make kinilaw, a raw seafood dish similar to ceviche.

“This is part of the Philippines,” one young volunteer reservist said. “I’m ready to die for it.”

*In the next part of this series from the Philippines's most northern province, we will report from Itbayat where Indigenous people are signing up as reservists. 

Source: Al Jazeera