Philippines to open base near disputed sea even without US

Subic: The Philippine air force and navy will go ahead with a plan to open camps in a bustling freeport facing the disputed South China Sea even if a proposed American military presence doesn’t happen, the defense secretary said on Friday.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, unveiled plans two years ago to open air force and navy camps at the Subic Bay Freeport so fighter jets and frigates can respond faster to any contingency in the disputed waters where the Philippines has been facing an assertive China, which claims most of the area.

The Philippines signed an accord last year to allow allied American forces to temporarily station in camps including Subic, but the pact became uncertain after left-wing groups questioned its constitutionality at the Supreme Court.

While a US military presence in the camps would help, Gazmin said the government would proceed to construct the bases soon even if the court eventually decides against access for US troops. The
Philippines has scrambled to modernise its military, once of Asia’s weakest. It has bought 12 new South Korean fighter jets with the first two to be delivered later this year and stationed at Subic, Gazmin said.

Subic Bay, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) northwest of Manila, used to host Washington’s largest naval base outside the American mainland until it was closed down in 1992, ending nearly a century of US military presence.

Three years after, China seized a strategic reef also claimed by Manila, prompting Philippine senators to ratify the pact that allowed American forces to return for annual combat drills. Roberto Garcia, the Subic administrator, said an airport and seaport will have a dual military-civilian use.

Businesses, including hotels and restaurants, would likely back the return of military personnel, he said. American personnel from the USNS Mercy, a huge hospital ship docked in Subic for an annual humanitarian mission, swarmed shopping malls and restaurants. “There was a guy who brought two Christmas lanterns to his ship,” Garcia said.