US Returns to the Philippines in Force

Twenty-five years after the United States pulled its military out of the huge Subic Bay naval base and Clark Air Force Base amid anti-American sentiment, the US has returned to the Philippines with the biggest presence for decades as it seeks to counter Chinese influence and to defend a Filipino military that is clearly not capable of defending itself against the Chinese.

Rearming under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement is being hurried along in the wake of the Philippine Supreme Court’s ratification in mid-January because of the need to get the bases operational before President Benigno S. Aquino leaves office at the end of June. All of the presidential candidates except perhaps for Manuel A. Roxas are considered unknown quantities in terms of continuation of the Aquino government’s policies.

EDCA, as the pact is known, is vulnerable to changes and cancellation, partly because Aquino bypassed the Senate to complete the agreement through executive order. Since the pact was created by executive order, it could be undone by executive agreement on the part of the incoming president.

That may well be unlikely, given the current state of affairs, with the Chinese encroaching almost to the Philippine doorstep with the bases it is creating in the South China Sea. Nonetheless, the prevailing wisdom is that if the US-Filipino bases are operational, it would be unlikely for the incoming president to decommission them.

Accordingly, on March 19, officials of both countries told the media five Philippine bases are to be developed for dual-country use under EDCA, which was signed in April of 2014 but was held up by opponents in the courts.

China immediately objected to the announcement of the enhanced military presence, charging it was unnecessarily provocative and aimed at undermining China’s rightful ownership to the entire sea. “By collaborating to confront China politically and militarily, the United States and its allies may be thinking they can undermine the external environment of Chin and slow down its peaceful development,” Beijing charged in an editorial in the state-owned Xinhua news agency.

The bases include four Air Force facilities and the country’s largest army base, Fort Magsaysay, primarily a training area whose facilities include airborne and amphibious training, jungle survival and guerrilla warfare. US forces already use a small part of the reservation to store weaponry and equipment needed for annual Balikatan exercises with the Philippine military.

Others are the Lumbia airport in Cagayan de Oro on Mindanao Island, which will be converted into a US storage depot for disaster relief equipment, the Mactan-Benito Ebuen air base, which shares a 10,000-foot runway with the Mactan-Cebu international airport, and bases on Palawan, near where the Chinese military has continued its construction activities around Scarborough Shoal.

The US left the Philippines in 1992 over a rent agreement, ending a military presence that began when Spain ceded the islands to the United States in 1898 although it was interrupted by World War II. The US re-landed with General Douglas MacArthur and remained there for decades. It was from the Philippines that the US ran much of its military operations during the Cold War and the hot one in Vietnam as well. The 60,000 acre Subic Naval Base – as big as the entire island of Singapore – was the Navy’s principal supply and ship-repair installation in the region, most of which was shifted to Guam and Singapore.

The US military, however, began a quiet return in the effort to help the Philippine military contain the threat from Islamic separatists on Mindanao. In 2002, the US Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines, comprised mostly of Special Forces troops, have operated in support of Filipino soldiers.

The renewed presence under EDCA, however, is much more directed to containing Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea, where the Chinese have mounted extensive dredging operations to turn specks of outcroppings into major airbases.

In the meantime, provocations between the Chinese and the Philippines have increased with the Chinese accusing Filipino fishermen of throwing fireballs at them and Filipino fishermen in Zambales last week who were returning from Scarborough Shoal saying they were rammed by Chinese Coast Guard boats while trying to fish in the area.

Notably, according to the Manila-based Pacific Strategies & Assessments, the Philippine Air force base at Clark in Pampanga and the Colonel Jesus Villamor Air Base near Manila – the two most advanced air bases in the country – were not included. The airport at Cubi Point in Subic Bay, which is still civilian controlled but is earmarked for military use, was also not included. A senior Filipino official in the department of National Defense was quoted as saying the selection was a careful strategic decision that should not be seen only through the lens of the South China Sea.

Choosing naval facilities, particularly those along the South China Sea, such as the San Miguel Naval Station in Zambales, would be unnecessarily provocative and would weaken the Philippine argument that it is China – not the Philippines – that is militarizing the area, the source told PSA.

US State Department spokesman John Kirby said with a straight face that “there is nothing offensive or provocative” the military’s redeployment, although he added that “the United States has “made absolutely no bones about the fact that we take the rebalance to the Asia Pacific region very seriously. It’s not about selling it to the Chinese or to anybody. It’s about meeting our security commitments in a serious alliance with the Philippines. That’s what this is about.”

The US has sent naval vessels into waters around the islets that the Chinese claim, with the US guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur passing within 12km. of Triton Island in the Paracel chain in January, to Chinese outrage. US aircraft have also overflown the islands, intruding into territory the Chinese claim.

PSA described the facilities chosen as “generally in a moderate level of disrepair. They are not so poorly maintained that they will require complete reconstruction, but they do require significant modernization. The bases chosen can be quickly upgraded and used by the United States. This is why the Clark and Villamor bases, which are the country’s most modern, were not chosen first. They are already in usable condition for most United States aircraft.”