Bashi Channel — where we go to war! Featured

NOT much is known to the Filipino public about the Bashi Channel in the Batanes and the Babuyan islands off the northern coast of Cagayan province. But this is where we go to war.

Bashi's strategic importance is that this narrow passage is a global trade route, rivaling the Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia, and the Formosa/Taiwan Strait between Taiwan and the Chinese province of Fujian. Underneath pass submarine communications cables connecting the US West Coast, Japan and South Asia, carrying approximately 97 percent of data and telephone traffic.

I wrote in my previous columns about the CSIS/CNAS wargaming of China's Taiwan invasion, drawing America to war. Bashi similarly ensnares the Philippines, albeit reluctantly, into this conflict. I draw heavily from the CSIS/CNAS public documents furnished to this columnist.

Bottlenecks

Three narrow straits separate China from the rest of the world through the open waters of the Pacific. First is the Yonaguni Channel to Taiwan's northeast spanning 120 kilometers to Japan's westernmost Yonaguni island — where cruise missiles are currently being installed. The second chokepoint is the Formosa/Taiwan Strait itself fronting China's Fujian province, whose narrowest point is just 180 km. The third chokepoint is the Bashi Channel, integral to the Luzon Strait 100 km from Taiwan, straddling the gateway to the Pacific.

But in the event of hostilities, this is "... critical either for Chinese naval forces to break out of home waters and get into the open Pacific to target US military installations on Guam to the east, or for US warships to get into the South China Sea." (CNN Brad Lendon, April 4, 2023)

Dominance over these chokepoints will spell the difference between victory and defeat for opposing forces. Both the Yonaguni and Bashi channels, if held, will prevent China's invasion forces from encircling Taiwan to the north and south compelling a frontal assault across the Taiwan Strait. Both are part of the First Island Chain, the US strategic maritime containment conceived originally during the Cold War projecting US power in the Western Pacific, restricting sea access by Russia and now principally China. These two channels are key to China's successfully reacquiring Taiwan or prove to be the graveyard of ships for both Chinese and American allied forces. Control therefore of supply lines through this channel is imperative. Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan is its largest container port, handling 62 percent of its cargo volume. US forces will have to supply Taiwan through Kaohsiung from US pre-positioned logistics in bases in the Philippines and Japan.

US Seventh Fleet

The key to dominance over Bashi and the other chokepoints is air superiority, missiles and naval blockade. The US Seventh Fleet with its flagship, the USS Ronald Reagan, has a carrier strike force of up to 10 to14 guided-missile destroyers and cruisers armed with theater ballistic missile interceptors, long-range Tomahawk land-attack missiles and anti-aircraft armaments. An additional 8 to 12 nuclear-powered submarines are some of the Seventh Fleet's deadly adjuncts. If needed, it can be augmented by the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group (CSG), currently operating in the Philippines seas (South China Sea/West Philippine Sea) for a combined total of perhaps 50 to 70 surface ships and submarines, squadrons of 150 aircraft of all types, and 27,000 American sailors, marines and special forces.

But air cover from carriers, though formidable, will depend on the capability of carriers and the armada to launch and retrieve them from sorties while under relentless threat of China's land-based missiles. In the CSIS/CNAS war games, two aircraft carriers are sunk by China's missiles, hundreds of aircraft and two dozen assorted ships. China suffers worse losses.

But while the US Navy can maintain the vessels in the area for months, carrier-based jets can only sustain operations for a few hours requiring extensive maintenance, logistics and service facilities. This conundrum compels the aircraft with a flexible operational range to follow the floating bases while under hostile missile reach. Land-based aircraft with a wide operational range are critical to air superiority over the Bashi chokepoints and cover over Taiwan itself.

This is where the EDCA sites in the Philippines come into play.

EDCA military sites (bases)

Much has been written about the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) of the Philippines with America purportedly for humanitarian and relief operations to mitigate climate change disasters in the Philippines.

This fiction, perpetrated by the two governments diverting their respective citizenry from EDCA's real purpose, will not hold for long. Unknown largely to both publics and coming from impeccable sources, "... 300-strong US special forces in Zamboanga have been there since 2002, continuously. They are rotated every six months to satisfy the provisions of the VFA." This is the template for the nine EDCA sites. The Pentagon in a briefing conducted by its spokesman Sabrina Singh stressed that the EDCA sites "... would not see a permanent US military presence — that's not allowed under the EDCA — but would be available to US forces in 'contingencies.' This is really about regional readiness ... you're going to see an increase of rotational forces in the region ... the Department of Defense would work in lockstep with Philippine partners to rapidly modernize the bases."

In short, these contingencies being envisioned are in line with the coming conflict with China over Taiwan. On March 13, 2023, for the first time, F22 Raptors fighter jets were deployed to Clark Air Base in a joint exercise with the Philippine Air Force. This presages F-22 and F-35 deployment in the EDCA sites which are now being improved with mostly American dollars. The EDCA sites in Luzon would fulfill the requirement for air superiority over the Bashi Channel and the southern Taiwan port of Kaohsiung, while those in Balabac in Palawan will provide armed muscle facing the Chinese artificial island military bases.

Chinese invasion scenario

"Between 2026 and 2027, China will invade Taiwan. The first option for China is to do a pre-emptive strike going for an early knockout with its warplanes and missiles on Taiwan's small air force and weak navy, a surgical strike with all its resources going for a quick decapitation of Taiwan's defenses, communications and leadership."

Simultaneously, China executes a "Pearl Harbor raid," raining missiles on the nine EDCA sites, demolishing their second-strike capabilities, and jeopardizing air superiority over Bashi and Kaohsiung. There is no doubt that these EDCA sites will be a magnet for Chinese retaliation or pre-emptive targeting. And many of our people will die." (From "Wargaming China-Taiwan conflict," The Manila Times, April 4, 2023)

This debate on whether EDCA bases are good or bad for the Philippines is no longer efficacious and is simply moot.

When the 1947 MBT and the 1951 MDT with America were signed, our government condemned us to take sides. What is infuriating is the propensity of our leaders to play charades with the Filipinos, insulting their intelligence by not telling them like it is, while American decision-makers are open about EDCA expansion as a deterrent to China's invading Taiwan. And if deterrence doesn't work — then EDCA bases must be used to fulfill their true purpose. A platform to defeat China. And if you ask the man in the street, chances are they'd go with America rather than China. There is no middle ground.

We never really did have a choice!

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Read 420 times Last modified on Thursday, 08 June 2023 02:02
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