A strategic pearl for US-Philippine ties
By Al Labita
MANILA - Nearly 600 kilometers southwest of the Philippine capital, workers are building an access road to link the mainland of Luzon to Oyster Bay on the island province of Palawan. The pristine island is a major tourist destination, but the project is not aimed at luring foreign travelers, rather to transform the bay into what officials are referring to as a "mini Subic".
Like Subic Bay, north of Manila and once the site of the United States' largest military facility in the Asia-Pacific, Oyster Bay's cove includes a deep natural harbor capable of hosting large vessels, including warships. Unlike Subic, Oyster Bay opens directly on the South China Sea, strategically situated 150
kilometers from hotly contested and potentially hydrocarbon-rich maritime territories in the Spratly Islands.
President Benigno Aquino's government has allocated around 500 million pesos (US$12 million) to Oyster Bay's initial groundwork, with piers, dry docks and ship repair yards also on the drawing boards. Construction of the naval port, part of the Armed Forces of the Philippines' broad modernization drive, is slated for completion in 2016, coinciding with the end of Aquino's six-year term.
As maritime tensions have flared with China, Aquino has given his backing to a US$1.8 billion military modernization program, including plans to bolster the country's external defense capabilities through new air and naval bases at Subic. At the same time, the government is hammering out a bilateral strategic deal with Washington that if completed would allow the US to deploy on a rotational basis a larger number of security forces on Philippine soil, including at the new facility at Oyster Bay. Washington has so far committed limited finance to the project from the US Defense Department's contingency funds.
Manila's development of Oyster Bay has been driven in part by rising traffic at Subic, particularly as more American battleships drop anchors at its piers. According to the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA), 72 US warships and submarines visited Subic between January and June this year. That figure compares with 88 US naval vessel visits in 2012, 54 in 2011 and 51 in 2010. The figures exclude port calls made in Manila and other ports outside Subic.
More US naval activity is likely if Manila and Washington, strategic allies under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement, agree to augment their defense ties through a new framework agreement under negotiation. Talks have recently stalled on various details, including ownership of proposed naval radar installations, but Manila is expected to develop Oyster Bay regardless of whether a new US strategic agreement is reached.
The Philippine Navy arguably needs more base space to accommodate new procurements, including two second-hand cutters purchased recently from the US. Last week, the Philippines opened tenders for new frigates worth 18 billion pesos. The bidding has drawn interest from 11 prospective suppliers from Italy, France, South Korea and India, among others. Armed with missiles and torpedoes, the vessels will reinforce the two cutters now patrolling the West Philippine Sea, as Manila refers to its claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.
Manila has also announced plans to purchase five patrol boats from France for approximately 90 million euros (US$116 million), as well as multi-role naval vessels from South Korea. They will support the fleet of 10 state-of-the-art patrol vessels, each weighing 1,000 tons, that Japan has committed to help bolster the Philippines' maritime capabilities.
Aquino's government is also known to be in the market for a submarine to enable its naval forces to patrol the country's claimed maritime territory undetected. "When you have a submarine, we will be able to track those violating our maritime laws without them noticing us," Philippine Navy spokesman Lt Rommel Rodriguez said in a recent statement.
Eye on China
The development of Oyster Bay could serve to agitate China, which in recent years has taken a more assertive position on territories it claims in the South China Sea. That includes the Scarborough Shoal, where Chinese and Philippine vessels engaged in a month-long stand-off in mid-2012. Around that time, US and Philippine commandos staged a mock amphibious assault near Oyster Bay as part of their annual "Shoulder-to-Shoulder" joint military exercises. While some Philippine officials have demurred on whether US vessels would have access to the new base, others have said the US is building advance command posts on Palawan to monitor the South China Sea.
Local opposition to Oyster Bay's development, however, could complicate the government's strategic designs for the area. Environmental groups have asserted strong objections to the plan, claiming heavy naval traffic would inevitably lead to pollution and destruction of the pristine area's marine sanctuaries.
Some have pointed towards the case of the US Navy minesweeper USS Guardian, which ran aground near Palawan's Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO world heritage site, and destroyed an estimated 2,300 square meters of 10-meter-high coral reefs in January this year. The US has yet to pay the 60 million peso fine imposed by the Philippine government, an amount critics claim is a pittance for the extraordinary damage wrought to the area's ecologically valuable coral reefs.
"The impending construction of a base on Oyster Bay, which is within a marine protected area, seems to be the next crime the US is intent on pushing through," Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment, a local group, said in a statement. The group also claims the US has yet to clean up the toxic waste and complete other rehabilitation of its former military bases at Subic and Clark, which were both closed in 1992.
Other local groups assert that Palawan's residents will wake up one day to find that the entire island province has been transformed into a virtual US military base, similar to the sprawling complex in Okinawa, Japan. Pamalakaya, a local leftist group, has threatened to resist Oyster Bay's development, saying in a statement: "We will contest this grand mockery of Philippine sovereignty in the parliament of the streets, in any appropriate court or forum, and in the court of public opinion."
Plans are afoot to station 50 to 60 US marines in Palawan as an advance detachment focused on the South China Sea, according to news reports. The US also reportedly wants to convert the 246-hectare Philippine Marine Corps reservation in Palawan, particularly Brooke's Point, and nearby areas into joint US-Philippines marine operational command posts. The posts would reportedly entail the installation of high-powered radar systems in strategic areas across Palawan pointed towards the South China Sea.
The radar systems, designed specifically to monitor China's naval activities, are part and parcel of the Philippines' plans to allow American forces, ships and aircraft easy access to a larger number of its military camps and facilities. Although Philippine laws prohibit the establishment of permanent foreign military bases in the country, the US has found a "places not bases" loophole in the law by piggybacking on the Philippines' own camps and facilities to skirt the ban and advance its geopolitical interests vis-a-vis China.
Al Labita is a Manila-based journalist.
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