April 28, 2014, 7:00 AM SGT
5 Philippine Bases Where the U.S. Military Will Look to Gain a Footing
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A Philippine soldier stands on a pier near Oyster Bay on Palawan Island in the western Philippines on Sept. 25, 2013.Reuters
The Philippines used to be a central hub for U.S. military operations in the Asia-Pacific, and the Southeast Asian country looks set to fulfill that role once more – albeit on a smaller scale – as the two countries reboot their long-standing alliance.
U.S. President Barack Obama and his Philippine counterpart Benigno Aquino III are expected to sign a new security pact – the Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation – in Manila on Monday. The deal paves the way for U.S. forces to return to bases which, in some cases, they ran for decades before the Philippines ordered all American troops to leave the country in the early 1990s. Though the Americans were never unpopular here, Philippine society at the time simply saw no justification for their continued presence, given the lack of any credible external threat.
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Now, the Philippines is engaged in territorial wrangles with China and is asking the Americans it booted out to come back. The Obama administration, engaged in a strategic “pivot” to Asia that had been running low on momentum, is happy to accept Manila’s invitation.
The two sides remain tight-lipped about where the U.S. plans to deploy its forces and in what numbers. But since the deal’s purpose is to boost the Philippines’ deterrent against China, locations affording easy access to the strategically sensitive South China Sea are obvious candidates. Here are five places the U.S. military is likely to aim for.
1. Subic Bay and Cubi Point, Western Luzon
Subic Bay used to be the U.S. Navy’s biggest stronghold outside the United States: More than 4,000 American officers and their dependents were stationed at what was the Seventh Fleet’s main forward maintenance station, while some 4 million U.S. sailors passed through Subic every year during the base’s Vietnam War-era heyday. Neighboring Cubi Point performed a corresponding role for the hundreds of naval aircraft in the region.
Today, Subic Bay serves as a commercial shipyard and container port, while Cubi Point sits empty.
Promenaders watch the docked amphibious assault ship USS Essex embark from Subic Bay in October 2006.AP
In 2013 Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin announced that the government was planning to set up Philippine Naval and Air Force bases at Subic given its proximity to disputed territories in the South China Sea, notably Scarborough Shoal, the scene of a tense standoff between Chinese and Philippine vessels in 2012. Local leaders and business people in Subic Bay confirm that both Philippine and American defense officials have been there recently to examine the options.
Under the terms of the new defense pact due to be signed this week, the U.S. is only allowed “rotational” access to existing Philippine facilities and cannot run its own bases. That means the Philippines will have to set up new facilities at Subic before the Americans can come in. Even so, people living around Subic Bay are already expecting U.S. warships and aircraft to become an increasingly common sight within the next couple of years.
2. Clark, Central Luzon
The U.S. Air Force’s version of Subic Bay was Clark Air Base, once the epicenter of American air operations in the Western Pacific. The massive U.S. presence there came to an end with the eruption of nearby Mount Pinatubo in 1991, a time when the Philippine government had already signaled that U.S. forces would probably have to leave.
Subsequently reborn as the Clark Freeport Zone, Clark now serves as a commercial airport, and is tipped to be the site of the Philippines’ next real-estate boom. Because a Philippine Air Force base is also situated there, however, U.S. Air Force rotations could soon be passing through Clark in increasing numbers. Their tasks could be assisting with South China Sea surveillance as well as providing air combat capability – something the Philippines currently lacks.
3. Oyster Bay, Palawan
This perfect natural harbor – a bay within a bay on the west coast of Palawan – already plays host to a small Philippine Naval base, an hour north of the provincial capital Puerto Princesa. At present, however, the sleepy outpost is ill-equipped to play a frontline role in the Philippines’ territorial struggles with China, despite its proximity to the disputed Spratly Islands.
Last year, Manila earmarked 313 million pesos, roughly $7 million, to refit the base and enable it to berth up to four naval frigates. That program has yet to start, according to sources familiar with the situation who preferred not to be named, but the defense pact with the U.S. is likely to kick start the process.
U.S. Navy engineers just helped build an elementary school building in the village where the base is situated – suggesting that they are preparing the ground for an imminent deployment.
4. Brooke’s Point, Palawan
The Philippine Marine Corps already operate a facility here at the southern end of Palawan, and it is widely rumored that the U.S. Marines have been studying the possibility of setting up a regional command post alongside their Philippine counterparts. Since the protection or capture of small islands is the Marines’ stock-in-trade, it stands to reason that the Corps would seek a foothold near the disputed Spratly Islands in case the Philippines needs help asserting its offshore claims against an increasingly assertive China.
Situated in the Luzon Strait at the northern end of the Philippine archipelago, the Batanes Islands offer an excellent vantage point from which to monitor a key maritime chokepoint for any vessels departing China for the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Navy used to operate a station here. Though long since abandoned, the remote Batanes outpost would have obvious advantages if Manila and Washington are keen to improve their monitoring of Chinese activities – and in particular to listen for any submarines passing through the Strait.