Islanders on small Philippine chain worry a China-Taiwan conflict could spill over

Luna Pham for RFA and BenarNews
Basco, Philippines
Islanders on small Philippine chain worry a China-Taiwan conflict could spill over A rainbow appears over the port in Basco, the capital of Batanes, the northernmost province of the Philippines, March 2, 2024.
Luna Pham/RFA

Basco, the capital of the island-chain province of Batanes, is a small town of narrow alleys, green hills and, in spring, bright pink blossoms of bougainvillea. Surrounded by the broad waters where the Pacific Ocean blends into the South China Sea, things tend to move slowly here. 

“Batanes is a small place,” says Mayor German Caccam. “It is like living in a paradise, and we do not like being disturbed by conflicts.” 

But islanders increasingly fear a conflict could be coming. 


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Though Batanes marks the northernmost point of the Philippines, it in fact lies closer to Taiwan, which is only 120 miles (193 km) away. On a clear day, islanders say they can see Taiwan’s southern tip.

Beyond that lies the Taiwan Strait, another flashpoint in a watery region beset by them. Beijing, which considers democratic Taiwan one of its provinces and vows to reunite it with the mainland, by force if necessary, regularly sends warships and airplanes around Taiwan in a show of strength to Taipei.

“The brewing war in the Taiwan Strait brings a lot of concerns to the people of Batanes,” says Caccam, a former teacher who has held the post since 2022. “Because of the proximity to Taiwan, Batanes is likely to be affected.” 

Nida Cartano, a teacher in Diura fishing village, 20 km from Basco, points to the direction of Taiwan, March 2, 2024. [Luna Pham/RFA]

That possibility sets up an interesting dilemma for the islanders. 

The people here feel vulnerable. They are served by a single, small airport that frequently closes due to bad weather.

And yet they are wary of hosting soldiers or military equipment for fear of provoking China and being caught up in a conflict that isn’t theirs.

“We are very worried about the situation in Taiwan,” Nida Cartano, a Batanes teacher, said. “Batanes is so small, we don’t have facilities to go into a war with anyone, so we are afraid.

“But hopefully there won’t be any war any time soon.”

The Philippine military has recruited hundreds of reservists in Batanes. In February, Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro visited the province to inspect local facilities. He ordered the military to boost the number of Filipino troops stationed in Batanes and to develop more military structures there. 

The province is “the spearhead of the Philippines as far as the northern baseline is concerned,” Teodoro told reporters.

Two boys walk past a school in Basco, March 2, 2024. [Luna Pham/RFA]

China and the Philippines are at odds over territory in the South China Sea, including at Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal), an area within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but where Chinese ships frequently run-off Filipino fishermen.

China bases its sovereignty on the so-called nine-dash line, which dips from the Chinese mainland deep into the South China Sea, encompassing the shoal and other nearby features that Manila views as their own.

But Taiwan is a particularly sensitive topic to Beijing. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson warned the Philippine government against “playing with fire on the issue of Taiwan” and “being exploited by others,” implying military cooperation between the Philippines and its treaty ally the United States.


US troops’ presence

The Bashi Channel, which separates Taiwan from Batanes, is a choke point for Chinese military operations in the region. 

It is also the place where the United States and its allies hold naval drills as one of the locations for Balikatan, an ongoing joint exercise between the American and Philippine militaries. 

Filipino media reported last year that the local government and the U.S. were discussing construction of a sea port on the island chain that could also be used for security purposes and facilitate American access to the area.

Local officials last year discussed the possibility of working with the U.S. to construct a sea port in Batanes that could also be used for security purposes and facilitate U.S. access to the area. 

U.S. Marine Corps planners evaluate a potential port location with Philippine Marine Corps personnel in Basco, Batanes, Philippines, Oct. 25, 2023. [Cpl. Christopher W. England/U.S. Marine Corps]

The U.S. military ultimately declined to get involved in the-estimated $50 million project – a move some believe is tied to local resistance to the idea. 

The decision not to proceed in helping to pay for the port may help remove a source of tension with China. But the U.S. is expected to take part in a couple of other projects in the province, such as helping to upgrade an airport and build warehouses that can also have a dual use. 

And in 2023, the Philippines extended the number of its military bases that U.S. forces can access to nine, including three facing Taiwan. 

Mayor Caccam said residents welcome the Balikatan exercise, which has been held three times, “because it makes us feel more secure.” 

“However, as the mayor of Basco, I am not so amenable with the presence of foreign forces, especially the U.S., because that will make us a target.” 

Basco Mayor German Caccam, a former teacher, is seen in his office, March 2, 2024. [Luna Pham/RFA]

For now, daily life in Batanes goes on as usual. Women wait in small alleys near the shore to clean and gut the day's catch. 

Unlike areas in the South China Sea where China claims territory, the fishermen of Batanes still have access to their traditional fishing grounds. 

But as tensions rise throughout the region, the people here can’t help but wonder how long their peaceful piece of the world will remain so.

This report was produced as part of a series through a collaboration between BenarNews and its sister agency, Radio Free Asia (RFA).


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