Canada is the latest Western country to unveil an Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China’s growing influence in the region as well as threats to take over Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province.

Ottawa is expected to increase defense spending to expand its military presence in the region and deepen its security relations with like-minded states, like the Philippines.

For instance, Canada is waiting for the Philippines to issue an executive order allowing states with no formal military alliance with Manila to take part in naval exercises within Philippine territorial waters.

Last month, a Canadian naval officer boarded a Philippine warship to observe the multinational sea exercises in the central Philippines called “Sama-Sama.” The US, Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom participated in a rare naval drill in Cebu.

More multilateral exercises are expected in the months and years ahead as tensions in the region heat up following China’s increased presence and naval activities in the South China Sea and around the Taiwan Straits.

China has conducted several drills around self-ruled Taiwan after the third highest US official, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, made a pitstop in Taipei during her Asian tour in August.

Some US security officials predicted China would invade Taiwan in two to three years, similar to what Russia did in the Ukraine in February this year.

Chinese threats to annex Taiwan has led Western states to prepare contingencies, making the Philippines more important for the defense of Taiwan.

The Canadians are visiting areas in northern Luzon to look at how military facilities in Cagayan and civilian airfields in Batanes and other parts of northern Luzon would play a role in case of a conflict in Taiwan.

While the Canadians are still scouting for locations, the Americans have gone ahead with requesting Manila for additional locations to rotate their military forces under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Army Lt. Gen. Bartolome Vicente Bacarro, the armed forces chief of staff, said the Americans were interested in co-locating its forces in an air force base in Lal-lo town in Cagayan as well as prepositioning equipment in army bases in Isabela, Zambales, and Palawan.

Under the agreement, the Philippines granted access to US forces in four air bases in Pampanga, Palawan, Cebu, and Cagayan de Oro, and an army jungle training camp in Nueva Ecija.

The additional five locations would give the Americans a total of 10 locations, excluding areas where it continued to have access without any agreement.

US Navy ships could make port calls to Subic and Manila while US planes were allowed to land and takeoff in Basco, Batanes for refueling during the war on terror in early 2000s. US spy planes also landed and took off at a former US air force base in Clark as early as 2012, or before EDCA was signed.

There were reports the US is also interested in using Laoag airport for drone operations and probably a naval base on an island in the Balintang Channel when the Philippine Navy develops Fuga island.

The importance of the Northern Luzon area is crucial for the control of the sealanes to Taiwan, which will deny the Chinese navy a free pass, although China has been sending waves of aircraft to breach the Taiwanese airspace to test the readiness of the island’s defenses.

China has also made its move to control the northern Philippines when a Chinese company tried to put up an ecotourism project in Cagayan, leasing Fuga island and co-opting local officials in the north with soft loans and investments.

When the joint US and Philippines troops held the annual “Balikatan” drills in Cagayan for the first time this year, local officials in Cagayan complained and opposed the exercises. Perhaps, China had a role in the local officials’ objections.

But the drills were important. For the first time, US Patriot missiles were brought ashore in Cagayan to simulate a missile attack. Hundreds of miles down in Tarlac, the US military demonstrated the capabilities of a high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS), the newest member of the US multiple launch rocket system (MLRS).

Washington has donated several HIMARS to Ukraine, which it used to hit targets deep into Russian territory.

In 2023, the US Army plans to deploy its precision-guided hypersonic medium-range and long-range ballistic missiles in the region to increase the lethality of US firepower in hitting ships as well as fixed land targets.

Hopefully, the US will deploy these weapons elsewhere because these could be potential magnets of attack from US adversaries.

The Philippines has yet to approve the additional locations requested by the US when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and acting Philippine Defense Secretary Jose Faustino met in Hawaii in late September.

This week, the two defense chiefs will have an opportunity to discuss bilateral security relations when they meet face-to-face at the Asean Defense Ministers Meeting Plus in Phnom Penh.

The meeting between the US and Chinese defense chiefs is much awaited but the Philippines’s role in the US Indo-Pacific strategy will be highlighted.

The US, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, France, Germany, India, and Japan are also interested in the Philippines because of its proximity to a potential flashpoint in Taiwan Straits and South China Sea.

The Philippines must play its cards well in the evolving security scenario in the region. It must use its strategic location to gain concessions to rebuild its external defense forces and develop a modest credible defense posture.

When the US abandoned Subic and Clark in 1992, the Philippines was left virtually defenseless. It remained to be the weakest link in the defense of the region but it could use its strategic advantage to strengthen its own external defenses. But it has to balance the risks.

There is a tremendous opportunity for the Philippines to gain something to fortify its defenses. It has to play its cards well.