The Philippines decided to reopen the former U.S. naval base in Subic Bay, which was closed for more than 20 years. The move shows that the Philippine government is intensifying its position against China’s expansionism in the disputed South China Sea.
The Philippines and China are currently engaged in a bitter territorial dispute in the South China Sea including a rich fishing shoal near the Subic naval base, which was previously the home of one of the world’s biggest naval facilities of the United States.
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The Philippines closed the Subic naval base for military use after its Senate terminated the country’s bases agreement with the United States by the end of the Cold War in 1992. The Philippine government converted the Subic naval base into an economic zone.
Very strategic location
In an interview with Reuters, Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo said the Philippine military signed a 15-year renewable agreement with Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA), the operator of the economic zone to use part of the naval base. The Philippine Military and the SBMA signed the agreement in May.
It would be the first time for the Philippines to use the massive installation in Subic as a military base in 23 years. Defense spokesman Peter Galvez said the Philippine government would deploy aircrafts and naval vessels ay Subic Bay.
According to him, the location of the Subic naval base is” very strategic” because it is facing the West Philippine Sea or the South China Sea.
“If we need to deploy to the West Philippine Sea, it [Subic] is already there, we do not deny that. It’s a deepwater port,” said Galvez.
Reopening the Subic naval base for military use will enable the Philippine air force and navy to respond more effectively and quickly to any Chinese activity in the disputed South China Sea, according to security experts.
Rommel Banlaoi, a security expert in the Philippines said, “The value of Subic as a military base was proven by the Americans. Chinese defense planners know that.”
Philippines to spend $23 billion to modernize its military
The Philippines has been strengthening its military relations with the United States, Japan, and Vietnam. The Philippine government also intends to spend $20 billion to modernize its military over the next 13 years.
Last year, the Philippines ordered twelve FA-50 light attack fighters from Korea Aerospace Industries. Two of the FA-50 light attack fighters will be stationed at the former Cubi naval station in Subic Bay early in 2016.
The Philippine military will deploy the full squadron of FA-50s at the Subic naval base. It will also relocate the 5th Fighter Wing from a base in Northern Luzon at the Subic naval base. It will also station naval frigates at the Alava Port in Subic Bay, according to two officials.
According to one of the officials, “There are existing facilities in Subic Bay. We need only to refurbish them.”
Philippines’ dispute against China
The dispute between the Philippines and China started in 2012 when the Philippines apprehended eight Chinese fishing vessels in the Scarborough Shoal. China’s maritime surveillance ships intervened and prevented the Philippine navy from arresting the fishermen in Chinese fishing vessels, who illegally collected corals and caught giant clams and live sharks.
The Chinese government unilaterally implemented a fishing ban in the South China Sea. The Philippines does not recognize the ban. China is claiming a large portion of the South China Sea including the Scarborough Shoal, which is 160 kilometers from the Philippines and 500 miles from China.
The Philippines filed a lawsuit against China in the U.N. tribunal to resolve the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. Beijing refused to participate in the case.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying recently stated that China “will never accept the unilateral attempts to turn to a third party to solve the dispute.” She urged the Philippines to negotiate directly with China.
China is currently building seven artificial islands in the disputed Spratly islands. Some of the artificial islands have military facilities.
Patrick Cronin, a regional expert at the Center for New American Security in Washington, commented that there is a possibility for China to transform the Scarborough Shoal into an artificial island one day. Such move could make it more difficult for the Philippines to protect its 200 nautical miles (370 km) exclusive economic zone off Luzon.
Cronin said, “New Korean-built light fighter aircraft could reach Scarborough Shoal in just minutes, and maritime patrol aircraft or drones could eventually provide persistent coverage of Chinese movements in the area.” He added, “A return to Subic Bay, this time led by the Philippine air force, would seem to be a prudent defensive response.”