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  • Writer's pictureIan Murphy

U.S. Military Presence in Taiwan and Philippines to Alter Balance of Power in the Indo-Pacific

Updated: Jan 26

As tensions with China continue to grow, the United States is boosting its military presence in the Indo-Pacific region, notably in the Philippines and Taiwan.

On February 1, the U.S. announced plans to set up four new military bases in the Philippines under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Lt. Gen. Bartolome Vicente Bacarro of the Philippine Army said that bases in Cagayan, Palawan, Zambales, and Isabela are being considered. At present, the U.S. already has access to five Philippine military bases, particularly in Palawan, Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, and several bases in Visayas and Mindanao.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin led U.S. efforts to reinforce security partnerships in the region. During his visit to the Philippines, Austin said that the expansion of military presence in the country is part of the efforts to “modernize” the alliance between the U.S. and the Philippines and at the same time help thwart China’s unlawful advances against Philippine forces in the West Philippine Sea.

In a similar fashion, the U.S. is also strengthening its ties with Taiwan to help deter a possible invasion by China. Washington has announced that it will deploy between 100 to 200 troops to aid in Taiwan’s military training program. As of March 2023, the U.S. only has 30 military officers in Taiwan, stationed at the American Institute in Taiwan. Most of the military personnel are part of the State Department’s Marine Security Guard, whose mission is to protect U.S. citizens, prevent the compromise of classified U.S. government information, and to serve as a focal point for all post-emergency communications.

What will the U.S. military do with the local military?

The U.S. military has prepared a training program in cooperation with Taiwan’s military. Full details about the training program have not yet been publicly divulged by the Pentagon lest it provoked China. What has been revealed, however, is that the Taiwanese military will undergo training with U.S. weapons systems as well as military maneuvers that will help Taiwan defend against Chinese aggression. Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chin Kuo-cheng confirmed that the upcoming training program will be more extensive and will go beyond basic combat training, which is a major upgrade from small-unit tactics training currently being provided by special operations forces to Taiwan’s military. The troops that are set to be deployed to Taiwan will include members of the special operations forces as well as the U.S. Marines.

In addition to the training program in Taiwan, a number of Taiwanese military servicemen will participate in a training program conducted by the Michigan National Guard in Camp Grayling. U.S. officials said that the extensive training programs had been planned for months before the Chinese spy balloon incident.

In the Philippines, the U.S. is expected to continue providing training to Philippine military personnel. The more than 100 military personnel dispatched in the Philippines have been providing advice to the military on intelligence and combat operations crucial in the country’s decades-long battle against insurgent groups in Mindanao. In more recent months, the U.S. expanded its joint training programs to include courses on combat readiness and disaster response, particularly in bases in the Philippines’ western coast, where the Philippine Coast Guard often encountered Chinese Coast Guard and private vessels.

Both the Philippines and Taiwan will also receive financial support from the U.S. to bolster their respective military capabilities. The U.S. has allocated US$82 million for infrastructure projects at Philippine military bases, and Taiwan will be receiving new upgrades to their weapons systems after the U.S. approved the sale of US$619 million worth of weapons. Taiwan’s new purchases include 200 anti-aircraft Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles and 100 AGM-88B HARM missiles — designed to strike electronic transmissions coming from surface-to-air radar systems.

How does the US increased presence in Taiwan and the Philippines relate to each other?

The increased presence of U.S. military in Taiwan and Philippines are interrelated and are part of the U.S. strategy to counter Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific and prevent it from dominating the First Island Chain. However, it was only in recent months that the U.S. started accelerating its plans by entering into bilateral security agreements with regional allies.

Taiwan and the Philippines have both been receiving additional attention from delegations led by top U.S. officials who later went on to address Chinese security challenges through legislation. Prior to Austin’s visit to the Philippines in February, Vice President Kamala Harris visited the country in November 2022, which signaled warmer ties between the U.S. and Philippines. During her visit, Harris vowed support for the Philippines as it faces “intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea.” Meanwhile, Taiwan welcomed former Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi in August 2022, which drew international attention to China’s warfare capabilities and hostile rhetoric.

How will this affect the balance of power in the region?

Just as it’s helping Ukraine defend itself against Russian invasion by coordinating European allies, the U.S. is flexing both its military and diplomatic strength in the Indo-Pacific to hedge against China’s war plans.

The U.S.’ renewed security partnership with the Philippines is seen as a game changer. Containing the Chinese military within the First Island Chain will significantly curtail its warfighting abilities and deprive it of necessary imports during wartime, including oil, coal, raw materials, and foreign technology. Diane A. Desierto, professor of law and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, said the “[Philippine] archipelago is guaranteed to give the U.S. a kind of strike capability that the base in Okinawa or the base in Thailand is unable to give.” Moreover, the Philippines’ location will allow U.S. troops better access to main waterways in Southeast Asia and give the U.S. more channels for engagement with nations in the Southeast and Northeast Asian regions.

The current latticework of partnership the U.S. has fostered is flexible and dynamic, and a fit for current trends in national security. Unlike the hub-and-spokes model of the old U.S.-led alliance in Asia, the current arrangement gives allies more freedom to plan their respective defense strategies while engaging with like-minded partners.

This article was previously published on The News Lens International on March 15, 2023.


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