Shortly before noon on Sunday, four Osprey tilt-rotor helicopters roared over a verdant ridge in Batan, a remote island in the northern Philippines.
“They are coming!” shouted Eugene, a local resident, to his wife Hilda, who was selling souvenirs in their tiny shop at the Tayid lighthouse, calling her to witness the arrival of the military aircraft — and global great power competition — to their sleepy Pacific coastline.
This past weekend, Batan hosted exercises where Philippine and US troops defended against an aggressor, part of the allies’ largest joint drill in more than 30 years as they seek to strengthen military ties in the face of an increasingly assertive China.
The island has long been a backwater where locals catch huge blue marlin and yellowfin tuna from small wooden boats and tourists wander volcanic hills and historic churches in the town of Basco.
But now that Taiwan — just 200km to the north across the Bashi Channel — has become a flashpoint in the geopolitical struggle between China and the US, Batan is being redefined as a “key terrain” that both sides could fight to occupy if they ever go to war.
As part of the effort, hundreds of Marines and soldiers from the US and Philippines were airlifted on to a grassy plateau to practice securing the terrain against a potential invader. Below, a US Army amphibious landing craft surveyed the beach for suitability to unload Himars mobile rocket systems, which have played a forceful role in the war on Ukraine, to keep enemy ships at bay.
It is the first time Balikatan, the annual US-Philippine exercise, includes manoeuvres in the strategically located islands off northern Luzon. Last Friday and Saturday, the two militaries staged similar air assault drills on the neighbouring islands of Fuga and Calayan.
Previously, the Philippines was less inclined to demonstrate the will to defend the entirety of its territory, said Major General Joseph Ryan, commander of the US Army’s 25th Infantry Division. “But now there’s more of a reason. I think in large part it’s the insidious nature of the People’s Republic of China,” he said.
“We’re expanding our posture to this island here, on the South China Sea, near Taiwan. Doing both of those things, we’re demonstrating our will to help our allies and partners,” Ryan added. “This should be a signal to the PRC that we’re serious.”
Extending the manoeuvres to the northern islands is part of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s effort to revitalise the Philippines’ alliance with the US. Earlier this month, he gave US forces access to four additional Philippine military bases under the bilateral Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, a shift Beijing registered with alarm.
The Chinese ambassador to the Philippines blasted Marcos’s decision to include three bases close to Taiwan among the new EDCA sites as “stoking the fire”. At the weekend, the Chinese foreign minister pleaded with Marcos and his foreign secretary to deepen the two countries’ ties.
In domestic Philippine politics, this pressure to take sides has unleashed fierce debate, with some politicians demanding the government guarantee that US forces will not be allowed to stock weapons on the bases in question or refuel aircraft there in case of a conflict.
Batan residents have watched the turmoil unfold with curiosity and unease. “I have been hoping that they come here and we can watch how they exercise,” said Eugene, whose family owns the pasture around the lighthouse.
Hilda added she was in favour of a stronger US military presence, especially in the north. “Of course this exercise reminds us that trouble might be coming. But if trouble is coming, we must protect ourselves,” she said. “We worry because of China. Taiwan is a good country, a democracy, and so many of our fellow Batan people work in factories there, and we worry for them.”
About 150,000 Filipinos work in Taiwan, and their safety is one of the government’s main concerns in the context of a potential conflict over the country, which China claims as its territory and has threatened to take by force.
Even in mainland northern Luzon, locals have begun to wonder whether they may end up on the front lines. Rey Barba, a firefighter in Santa Ana, a town where the Camilo Osias naval base, one of the new EDCA sites, is located, said some residents were concerned that a bigger US military presence could drag their homeland into a war that was not theirs.
Others disagreed. “I think it is necessary that the US military helps make our armed forces stronger,” said Michael, a fishmonger in the Santa Ana market. “It is necessary because of China.”
For many on Batan, the issue is deeply personal. The island’s indigenous population is of the same ancestry as the Tao people of Orchid Island, the offshore Taiwanese island about 100km north of the northernmost point of the Philippines, and their languages share many common words.
“We are connected,” said Dale, a young Batan resident who drives tourists around on his tricycle. “Our government sometimes says the EDCA sites are good so the US military can help when there are typhoons or earthquakes. But I think it is about China and Taiwan.”