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The tiny Philippine island on the frontline of the US-China battle for supremacy

The azure waters are inviting and its long stretches of clear white sand are spotless. But hardly anyone is swimming or sunbathing. Fuga Island is not a holiday destination.

The residents of the remote community of just over 2,000 on the northern tip of the Philippines are farmers and fishermen – growing palay and corn; raising native chicken, pigs and goats; and catching their bounty from the sea.

However, things are changing on Fuga Island. These days a detachment of marines watches its coastline closely. The coast guard also regularly patrols the area, and might soon build a station there. They could soon be joined by US troops, too.

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To understand why requires only a brief look at the map. Fuga lies less than 400km (250 miles) from Taiwan and is situated in waters connecting the South China Sea to the Pacific Ocean, an area that is critical to the defence of the Philippines itself.

As tensions rise in the region, its location means Fuga Island is in demand. The land mass is part of Cagayan, one of the provinces identified as a potential site to host the US military under a deal called the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows joint training, construction of temporary facilities, and storage of equipment and supplies.

Unlike his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, President Marcos Jr has taken a stand against China’s aggression in the South China Sea, strengthening diplomatic and security ties with the US, Australia and Japan. The Philippines has reported dangerous manoeuvres by the China Coast Guard in the Spratly Islands, and in February accused Beijing of pointing a military-grade laser at a coast guard vessel.

Amid the escalating rhetoric, Marcos has agreed to expand from five to nine the number of its sites that the US military can access under the EDCA. Discussions are still under way on which sites to choose, but local military analysts say Fuga offers the most strategic value. Unlike other islands in the area, Fuga has the topography to accommodate an airport and a seaport.

“We want the marines and the coast guard here to protect the island. If it’s just us village officials, we cannot cover the entire area,” says Melchor Visario, the village chief on Fuga. He governs six communities scattered around the island, managing its meagre resources. He has been entertaining more visitors in recent years, as attention on the island grows. “We haven’t heard about the Americans coming here … They are also welcome.”

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While the likelihood of China’s military invading Taiwan remains a point of debate, the fear that Chinese forces would one day occupy Fuga is very real to its residents. “We are part of the Philippines. Where do we run? We will die if we are going to fight them ourselves,” says Marlon Erice, 46, a resident. “We will be safe here [with the security forces].”

China wanted Fuga first

It was Beijing, not Washington, that first saw Fuga’s potential. In 2019, Chinese company Fong Zhi Enterprise Corporation entered into an agreement with the private company that holds the title to the island, Fuga Island Holdings Inc, to build a “smart city” there as part of a $2bn project.

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However, the plan caused uproar in the Philippines security establishment, which was concerned about giving the Chinese an observation post within the country’s borders. The military quickly reached an agreement with regional leaders to establish a navy base on Fuga.

The smart city project did not materialise, but several other China-funded projects were planned for the province, including manufacturing facilities, a high-tech industrial park, and an airport expansion, among others.

Four years later, it may be the US’s turn to have a presence on the island. Fuga Island has undoubted strategic value to either superpower, as well as the Philippines. It is adjacent to two key passages – the Luzon Strait and the Bashi Channel – which provide access to the South China Sea and the Pacific.

“[The US military deal] will allow the navy to monitor vessels and traffic and provide a base of operations for naval and air operations in the northern border,” says retired Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong, who is now a professor of praxis at the Ateneo School of Government in Manila. “The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] navy used this route during the recent Taiwan crisis,” he says, referring to China’s exercises near Taiwan in August 2022.

Alex Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii, says a location in the northern Phillipines would give the US access to Taiwan and the South China Sea, “two major places on the lifeline of Asia and the frontier of the great power competition of our time”.

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With the military comes vital supplies

Despite their fears of China’s ambitions for the region, residents are enjoying the new attention the neglected island has been receiving. “Services are coming to us unlike before,” says Visario.

The difficulty of sea transport means the remote island has to rely on its own resources as much as possible, especially during the windy months from September to December when small boats cannot sail to the mainland.

It has an elementary school and some internet service, though it is usually patchy. Medical facilities are a boat ride away.

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There’s an old airstrip on the island, but it is owned by a private company that holds the title to the island and it’s not clear if it remains operational.

However, the regular trips of the navy and coast guard have guaranteed more regular supply runs. The marines brought a power generator. They turn on the TV for the early evening news, drawing nightly crowds at their base. Homes on the island rely on small solar-power units to run lights and charge phones.

Government workers arrived last year to teach the women dressmaking. The women now wish to get training on baking for those months when no one can travel. “We are afraid [of conflict erupting] but maybe it won’t happen,” said Ruby Visario, the wife of the village chief.

‘Curse of geography’

In March 2022, Appari, the municipality in which Fuga lies, hosted war games by the Philippine and US militaries on its shores. Helicopters, amphibious assault ships and a surface-to-air missile defence system were put on display to exhibit a coastal defence strategy, enthralling residents.

The war games offered a “foretaste of EDCA”, says Father Manuel Catral, parish priest in Aparri. He says the locals welcomed the presence of the US troops and he himself was quite impressed with the hardware they brought.

However, he says there needs to be more conversation if an EDCA facility is going to be built and US troops are to stay longer. Some of the fishing grounds were closed during the war games to protect residents. “We haven’t really talked about it. But is that what’s going to happen under EDCA?” he says. “That will be an important issue for the people.”

In April, the Philippines and the US will carry out their biggest ever joint military exercises, called “balikatan” or “shoulder-to-shoulder” drills. The war games are designed to project stability and deterrence but tensions are rising in the region, the US military grows more pessimistic about avoiding a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the next few years, and new military alliances such as Aukus are being formed to counter Beijing.

As the uncertainty spirals, and the risks of a miscalculation increase, one thing is clear to retired Rear Admiral Ong: the Philippines cannot avoid getting involved if the Taiwan crisis erupts into a conflict. “It’s the curse of geography.”