South China Sea Standoff
Philippines to Reopen Huge Old U.S. Naval Base

It’s a fixer upper, but the old U.S. Navy base at Subic bay in the Philippines used to be one of the largest U.S. naval bases in the world. Now, Manila is refurbishing and reopening it as part of a $20 billion military modernization project aimed at standing up to China. Because of its location and its deep water port, Subic Bay is a major strategic asset, one that will house, according to the plan, both high speed jets and littoral combat ships. The Guardian reports:

Defence undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino told Reuters the Philippine military signed an agreement in May with the zone’s operator, the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, to use parts of the installation under a renewable 15-year lease. It marks the first time the massive installation has functioned as a military base in 23 years. […]

Using Subic Bay would allow the Philippine air force and navy to respond more effectively to Chinese moves in the disputed South China Sea, security experts said. Subic Bay’s deep-water harbour lies on the western side of the main Philippine island of Luzon, opposite the South China Sea.

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

The Philippines is pressing its case against China in court, but that’s unlikely to constrain the country even if the court sides against Beijing. Manila knows that ultimately it’s a weak power in its region and is therefore working outside the courtroom to change the calculus. Before this news, the most it had done recently was reinforce the rusted out shell of a beached ship that’s served as a remote outpost in the Spratlys. The Subic base project is in a league of its own.

The big question that might be on the minds of Beijing’s strategists is whether the U.S. will be able to use the base as well. Washington and Manila signed a defense deal in 2014 that would allow U.S. forces to use Philippine bases on a rotating basis. However, the deal’s constitutionality was challenged, and the issue hangs in the balance as a Philippine court adjudicates. If the agreement makes it through the legal gauntlet, the American and Philippine militaries both get access to a key base across from the South China Sea. From Beijing’s perspective, that’s just the kind of thing that might change a strategic calculus about one’s military advantage.

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