Reopening of US naval base in Philippines could fuel South China Sea row

Reading Time: 4 minutes
DN-ST-93-01093
The USS Enterprise seen docking at the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Cold War era.

The Philippine government on July 16 announced that it will revive a US-built deep-water naval base in Subic Bay, marking the return of military presence there for the first time since George H.W. Bush was in the White House.

China’s expansionist ambition in Southeast Asian waters is seen as the main instigator to the military base’s rebirth. Increasingly discordant exchanges between China and the Philippines have, according to security analysts, demanded action beyond the tub-thumping of President Aquino’s anti-China speech making.

“The value of Subic Bay as a military base was proven by the Americans. Chinese defense planners know that,” Rommel Banlaoi, a Philippine security expert, told The Guardian.

Moreover, Aquino’s security credibility makes the Subic Bay revival almost unavoidable. Earlier this year, his administration blundered through a botched special military operation in Mamasapano, an area in Mindanao, exposing a continued lack of military intelligence gathering capability.

In Subic Bay, the former mighty US military base could reassume its glory days. Closed in 1992, its return may ratchet up tensions in the region, bringing China and its neighbours deeper into Cold War-style brinkmanship of the seas. Chinese President Xi Jinping was said to be mulling over an option to cancel his trip to the APEC Summit meeting of leaders to be held this November in Manila, Want China Times reported. With tensions escalating to a new stage, that option looks more likely.

Under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), an agreement signed in 2014, US military is allowed a non-permanent, rotational presence on Philippine bases, now including Subic Bay. However, the agreement is currently frozen – the Philippine Supreme Council is assessing its validity. If the top court issue is favourable, every six months 1,000 American soldiers could arrive at Subic Bay, just 270 kilometers from Scarborough Shoal, which China seized from Manila in 2012.

“The US will not have a permanent base here but they will use our military facilities. US troops will train here on a rotational basis,” said Roberto Garcia, chair and administrator of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, the entity that took over management of the property after the US left in 1992.

Blind nationalism – on both sides of the sea

This iteration of Subic Bay as a military outpost has not thrilled all Filipinos, despite an all-time low public opinion on China. In some parts of Luzon, the political heart of the Philippines, the most authentic date for the country’s independence is considered to be November 24, 1992, the day that the US military left the Subic Bay Naval Base.

Filipinos are, culturally, the most American-minded of Asian nations. But there is also increasing pangs of unadulterated nationalism, a symptom of clashing polities at work to shape an identity in a soon-to-merge region. This could be because China’s territorial transgressions come just before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, is planning to form a cohesive economic body, the ASEAN Economic Community.

Notably, the Philippines and Vietnam have been most aggressively targeted by China’s hegemonic Nine-Dashed Line – a term that is referring to China’s claims for the major part of the South China Sea -, and are both have the most vocal nationalistic rhetoric in the region.

Subic Bay mapBut anger isn’t only being directed at China. Last year, when a US solider was accused of murdering a transsexual in Subic, pro-Filipino outcry hit a fever pitch. President Aquino said that the EDCA would have to be reassessed.

A deep mistrust of the US, the Philippines’ former ruling power, though idolised in culture, is still nestled within. After the reopening of the Subic Bay base was announced, protests by Filipino Americans were held in Washington, D.C.

Yet, a rising China maintains a constant threat to regional continuity and national sovereignty that is much harder to ignore, and has seemed to drown out any cries against what could be perceived as a silent re-colonization of the Philippines.

“The newest, biggest threat to the Philippines right now is China. They are silent about the fact that China has invaded seven of our shoals and has placed military bases on those shoals. We need the US as a counterpoint, as a deterrent to China’s invasive activities,” Rodel Rodis of the US Pinoys for Good Governance told ABS-CBN.

And Subic Bay is the strongest military move the Philippines has played against China since it purposefully docked a World War II cargo ship on the Scarborough Shoal in 1999 – a slapdash attempt to mark the waters as sovereign territory.

Although the White House hasn’t outlined a clear strategy for the South China Sea waters, greater presence by the US’s largest forward-deployed naval fleet is likely, given that warships already make periodic stops in the bay for military exercises. If the EDCA finds a second life, the US may get the signal to go a step further, basing some of the 70 naval ships of the 7th Fleet within a few minutes flight of the Scarborough Shoal for their aircraft.

Now that the Philippine-US alliance has entered a new track, China’s Xi Jinping could likely turn rumor into reality, opting out of the APEC Summit this year. The US has also promised to provide Vietnam with funds to purchase coast guard vessels. However, if President Xi does join the meeting of leaders, he’ll once again find himself in awkward company, where a growing litany of his neighbours are building up military positions to match their disgust.

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

The USS Enterprise seen docking at the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Cold War era.

The Philippine government on July 16 announced that it will revive a US-built deep-water naval base in Subic Bay, marking the return of military presence there for the first time since George H.W. Bush was in the White House.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

DN-ST-93-01093
The USS Enterprise seen docking at the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Cold War era.

The Philippine government on July 16 announced that it will revive a US-built deep-water naval base in Subic Bay, marking the return of military presence there for the first time since George H.W. Bush was in the White House.

China’s expansionist ambition in Southeast Asian waters is seen as the main instigator to the military base’s rebirth. Increasingly discordant exchanges between China and the Philippines have, according to security analysts, demanded action beyond the tub-thumping of President Aquino’s anti-China speech making.

“The value of Subic Bay as a military base was proven by the Americans. Chinese defense planners know that,” Rommel Banlaoi, a Philippine security expert, told The Guardian.

Moreover, Aquino’s security credibility makes the Subic Bay revival almost unavoidable. Earlier this year, his administration blundered through a botched special military operation in Mamasapano, an area in Mindanao, exposing a continued lack of military intelligence gathering capability.

In Subic Bay, the former mighty US military base could reassume its glory days. Closed in 1992, its return may ratchet up tensions in the region, bringing China and its neighbours deeper into Cold War-style brinkmanship of the seas. Chinese President Xi Jinping was said to be mulling over an option to cancel his trip to the APEC Summit meeting of leaders to be held this November in Manila, Want China Times reported. With tensions escalating to a new stage, that option looks more likely.

Under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), an agreement signed in 2014, US military is allowed a non-permanent, rotational presence on Philippine bases, now including Subic Bay. However, the agreement is currently frozen – the Philippine Supreme Council is assessing its validity. If the top court issue is favourable, every six months 1,000 American soldiers could arrive at Subic Bay, just 270 kilometers from Scarborough Shoal, which China seized from Manila in 2012.

“The US will not have a permanent base here but they will use our military facilities. US troops will train here on a rotational basis,” said Roberto Garcia, chair and administrator of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, the entity that took over management of the property after the US left in 1992.

Blind nationalism – on both sides of the sea

This iteration of Subic Bay as a military outpost has not thrilled all Filipinos, despite an all-time low public opinion on China. In some parts of Luzon, the political heart of the Philippines, the most authentic date for the country’s independence is considered to be November 24, 1992, the day that the US military left the Subic Bay Naval Base.

Filipinos are, culturally, the most American-minded of Asian nations. But there is also increasing pangs of unadulterated nationalism, a symptom of clashing polities at work to shape an identity in a soon-to-merge region. This could be because China’s territorial transgressions come just before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, is planning to form a cohesive economic body, the ASEAN Economic Community.

Notably, the Philippines and Vietnam have been most aggressively targeted by China’s hegemonic Nine-Dashed Line – a term that is referring to China’s claims for the major part of the South China Sea -, and are both have the most vocal nationalistic rhetoric in the region.

Subic Bay mapBut anger isn’t only being directed at China. Last year, when a US solider was accused of murdering a transsexual in Subic, pro-Filipino outcry hit a fever pitch. President Aquino said that the EDCA would have to be reassessed.

A deep mistrust of the US, the Philippines’ former ruling power, though idolised in culture, is still nestled within. After the reopening of the Subic Bay base was announced, protests by Filipino Americans were held in Washington, D.C.

Yet, a rising China maintains a constant threat to regional continuity and national sovereignty that is much harder to ignore, and has seemed to drown out any cries against what could be perceived as a silent re-colonization of the Philippines.

“The newest, biggest threat to the Philippines right now is China. They are silent about the fact that China has invaded seven of our shoals and has placed military bases on those shoals. We need the US as a counterpoint, as a deterrent to China’s invasive activities,” Rodel Rodis of the US Pinoys for Good Governance told ABS-CBN.

And Subic Bay is the strongest military move the Philippines has played against China since it purposefully docked a World War II cargo ship on the Scarborough Shoal in 1999 – a slapdash attempt to mark the waters as sovereign territory.

Although the White House hasn’t outlined a clear strategy for the South China Sea waters, greater presence by the US’s largest forward-deployed naval fleet is likely, given that warships already make periodic stops in the bay for military exercises. If the EDCA finds a second life, the US may get the signal to go a step further, basing some of the 70 naval ships of the 7th Fleet within a few minutes flight of the Scarborough Shoal for their aircraft.

Now that the Philippine-US alliance has entered a new track, China’s Xi Jinping could likely turn rumor into reality, opting out of the APEC Summit this year. The US has also promised to provide Vietnam with funds to purchase coast guard vessels. However, if President Xi does join the meeting of leaders, he’ll once again find himself in awkward company, where a growing litany of his neighbours are building up military positions to match their disgust.

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