There are some eerie similarities between the years that preceded World War II and the time we are currently living in.
In February of 1938, Nazi Germany seized control of Austria because it viewed Austria as part of Germany. Later that year, Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia, prompting the U.K. and France to appease Germany by allowing it to take the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. The architect of this appeasement approach, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, was greeted with cheers when he landed in London, saying the agreement brought “peace for our time.”
A few months after taking Sudetenland, Hitler broke his promises and invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. Just a few months after that Nazi Germany invaded Poland, sparking World War II. Interestingly enough, the Soviet Union made a deal with Hitler to take half of Poland for itself, and to not attack Germany — a so-called non-aggression pact. Just like Chamberlain, Stalin would later regret making deals with Hitler when Germany broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union less than two years later.
Before World War II, Japan had also built up its military and had also invaded its neighbors’ territories, starting with Manchuria in 1931. When the world war finally broke out, Japan would seize vast parts of Asia, including the Philippines.
Now that another large conflict is looming over the issue of Taiwan, which lies just 140 kilometers north of the Philippines’ northernmost province, it would make sense that the Philippines would see the need to prepare to repel invading forces when the rules of peace make way for the rules of war — just in case.
Unfortunately for the Philippines, its northernmost Batanes islands lie smack-bang in the middle of the Luzon Strait, the oceanic divide between the Philippines and Taiwan. In addition, the 140-kilometer gap between the Batanes islands and Taiwan, called the Bashi Channel, would be one of the most strategically valuable channels in a conflict over Taiwan.
Jay Batongbacal, a maritime affairs expert at the University of the Philippines, told Reuters last week, “If I were a Chinese strategist, I would want to take the Batanes at minimum in order to ensure control of the Luzon straits and use the island to prevent the approach of adversary naval forces.” The rest of the Philippines is also right next to the West Philippine Sea, which China calls the South China Sea — a waterway where China has become increasingly aggressive toward Philippine fishing boats and coast guard ships around contested reefs and shoals. China has also built large military bases on a number of these contested reefs.
Because of its own strategic value, and the likelihood that a war over Taiwan would spill over to its own shores, the Philippines is currently rebuilding its military and political relations with the U.S. This relationship deteriorated significantly during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, who led the country from 2016 to 2022. Duterte largely turned his back on the U.S. and pursued friendship with China. He was succeeded in 2022 by Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who has shown a renewed interest in building ties with the U.S.
Under Marcos’ presidency, Manila revived the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (ECDA) with the U.S. that had been left in limbo during Duterte’s presidency in February. In April, Manila added four military bases to the original five bases that the ECDA designated as open to U.S. military forces to access.
In another sign that Manila is building its military ties with the U.S., a local Philippine governor and two other officials told Reuters last week that the U.S. military is in talks to develop a civilian port in one of the Batanes islands. If the U.S. could secure such a port right on the edge of the Bashi Channel, it would boost American access to strategically located islands facing Taiwan.
If the Philippines were to give the U.S. its permission to build and operate such a strategic port, it would go a long way to cement U.S.-Philippines relations. It would also mean that the Philippines believe that the Batanes and the rest of its territory are too strategically valuable to be left alone in the future, and that it needs to help the U.S. help Manila to defend itself. As the ageless actor once said: “Help me, help you.”
The next few years would be crucial in the relationship between the U.S. and Manila. If Manila does increase U.S. military access to its territory, it would greatly diminish China’s ability to continue seizing contested islands and reefs in the South China Sea. It would also make it much harder for China to invade Taiwan if the U.S. could preposition its forces on the Batanes islands if an invasion seems imminent. One of the largest of these islands, Itbayat, is 17 kilometers long and only 160 kilometers from Taiwan’s southern tip. That means that a collection of U.S. Marine Littoral Regiments could use this sparsely inhabited island as an unsinkable aircraft carrier from where their Naval Strike Missiles could sink any ship that tries to round the southern tip of Taiwan. Such a force of U.S. Marines would be able to deploy large numbers of anti-ship and anti-air missiles to close not just the Bashi Channel but the whole Luzon Strait to Chinese warships and warplanes.
A team of U.S. Marine Littoral Regiments would form the southern part of a blocking force that would keep Chinese warships and warplanes away from Taiwan’s eastern flank during an invasion. The northern part of this blocking force would be U.S. Marine Littoral Regiments and Japanese forces stationed on Japan’s frontline islands — like Yonaguni Island, which is situated just 110 kilometers from Taiwan’s northern regions.
Thus, if the Philippines does work with the U.S. to protect itself and Taiwan from aggression, it would greatly complicate any plans the PLA might develop to invade Taiwan. That would in turn make it less likely for China to invade Taiwan, which would in turn make it less likely that a regional war will engulf the Philippines in the coming decades.