Officials: New lighthouses in northernmost Philippines emphasize sovereignty amid Taiwan-China tensions

Camille Elemia
Ivana, Philippines
Officials: New lighthouses in northernmost Philippines emphasize sovereignty amid Taiwan-China tensions The Philippine Coast Guard holds a ceremonial lighting ceremony in Ivana for four new lighthouses in the Batanes Group of Islands, Dec. 9, 2022.
Camille Elemia/BenarNews

The Philippines activated four new lighthouses in its remote northernmost islands of Batanes to emphasize their sovereignty, officials said, amid concerns of tension between neighbor Taiwan and China.  

The Batanes Group of Islands, the Philippines’ smallest province off the mainland, is near Taiwan – the province’s Itbayat island is only 150 km (93 miles) from southeast Taiwan’s Orchid Island. 

The province’s Gov. Marilou Cayco said the lighthouses constructed recently by the Department of Public Works and Highways cement Batanes’ role in the Philippine archipelago, noting that the islands have been off the radar from mainland Philippines for years. 

“This will not just intensify the presence of the Philippine Coast Guard here. More importantly it emphasizes and seals Batanes as an integral part of the Philippines, as the northern frontier,” Cayco said. 

The activation of the lighthouses comes weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping described Taiwan as “the core of China’s core interests,” in a November meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden. Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province.

Xi said Taiwan was “the first insurmountable red line in U.S.-China relations,” and called for the U.S. leader to stick to his commitment in not supporting Taiwanese independence.

BenarNews joined the Philippine Coast Guard on Friday for a ceremonial lighting of the lighthouses in the municipalities of Mahatao and Ivana in Batan island, the biggest island in the province, and in the ports of Sabtang and Itbayat islands. 

The group of islands is scattered in 4,500 square km (1,737 square miles) of rough waters and sea lanes between the Philippines and the southern parts of Japan, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. 

In an interview, Cayco said that citizens feared Batanes would be invaded by another country. 

“There is a concern among our citizenry, especially when the news of the threat was first reported. But because of the increasing presence of our military and the coast guard in recent years, our people’s fears have been allayed,” she told reporters.

Cayco further said that leaders of local and provincial governments have decided to focus on beefing up the remote islands’ food supplies to prepare for a possible conflict involving Philippine neighbors.

“We’re always preparing for food security because we are islands here and we get our food supply from Manila. All municipalities now have communal farms – that’s where we put our funds just in case there’s a war between China and Taiwan,” Cayco said. lighthouse.png

With more than 5,000 foreign ships transiting the area yearly, Cayco said the lighthouses will signal “to international vessels to respect the territory and sovereignty of our nation.” 

In 2018, the Philippines built a base and a fishermen’s shelter in Mavulis island, the uninhabited and northernmost island in Batanes, now manned by the marine unit of the Naval Forces Northern Luzon. Some fishermen have avoided Mavulis because of the presence of foreign poachers, mostly Taiwanese.

Coast guard ships from the Philippines and Taiwan have confronted each other in the region where exclusive economic zones overlap. They almost cut ties in 2013 after a Philippine ship fired on a Taiwanese fishing boat, killing a fisherman. 

Rear Adm. Joseph Coyme, who leads the Maritime Safety Services Command, said the construction of the lighthouses was meant to ensure ships’ safe passage and entry to ports and to “put importance in northern Luzon.”

In May, the coast guard installed five navigational buoys in the Kalayaan Island Group.

“It is also meant to establish sovereign rights and sovereignty in this area,” Coyme said during the ceremony at the Ivana port.

Foreign assistance

Batanes has seen a spike in foreign assistance in recent years from China and the United States, among others. 

In October, Philippine and U.S. Marine Corps members trained on disaster preparedness and emergency response as part of the joint Kamandag exercise or “Cooperation of the Warriors of the Sea.”

The U.S. also donated hospital beds, vaccine storage and water purification units. 

Municipal mayors welcomed the training because, they said, “you’ll never know when the people of Batanes need it.” 

Sabtang Island Mayor Prescila Babalo said she and others raised concerns with the U.S. that Batanes might suffer should a battle break out between China and Taiwan.

 “We told them, ‘We hope you don’t aggravate the situation because we are in the middle, we are near Taiwan and China might not like your presence here,’” Babalo said, adding that U.S. officials assured them they would not do so. 

Cayco said the U.S. also vowed to assist with infrastructure improvement – a possible sign that the U.S. “will safeguard the province.” 

Meanwhile, the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines has been extending financial assistance to the province for several years, according to the governor, adding Beijing is quick to release funds for the province’s food sufficiency program. 

“Taiwan told me they are also willing to help. But China is the persistent one,” Cayco said. 


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