US forces returning to Philippines to counter China threats

America taking steps to rebuild military might in archipelago more than 30 years after closure of large bases

The USNS John Ericsson American supply ship docked near what once America's largest overseas naval base, Subic Bay. AP
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Once-secret ammunition bunkers and barracks lay abandoned, empty and overrun by weeds — vestiges of American firepower in what used to be the US’s largest overseas naval base at Subic Bay in the northern Philippines.

But that looks set to change in the near future.

The US has been taking steps to rebuild its military might in the Philippines more than 30 years after the closure of its large bases in the country and reinforcing an arc of alliances in Asia, with China the perceived new regional threat.

The long-time allies last week announced that rotating batches of American forces would be granted access to four more Filipino military camps aside from five other bases, where the US is funding the construction of new barracks, warehouses and other buildings to accommodate visiting troops under a 2014 defence pact.

Manila-based political scientist Andrea Chloe Wong said the location of the camps would give the US military the presence it would need to be a “strong deterrent against Chinese aggression” in the South China Sea.

China, the Philippines and four other governments have been involved in territorial disputes — as well as a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which Beijing views as its own territory to be brought under control, by force if necessary.

Around the former US Navy base in Subic, now a bustling commercial free port and tourism destination north-west of Manila, news of the Philippines' government’s decision to allow an expanded American military presence rekindled memories of an era when thousands of US sailors pumped money, life and hope into the neighbouring city of Olongapo.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said during his visit to Manila last week that Washington was not trying to re-establish permanent bases, but that the agreement to broaden its military presence under the Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement was “a big deal”.

Chinese Foreign Ministry representative Mao Ning said the US military’s strengthening in the region was escalating tension and jeopardising peace and stability.

“Regional countries need to remain vigilant and avoid being coerced or used by the US,” Mr Mao told reporters at a briefing in Beijing.

Mr Austin did not reveal the four new locations where the Americans would be granted access and allowed to position weapons and other equipment.

Subic free port administrator Rolen Paulino said he had not been notified by the government that the former American naval base had been designated as a potential site for visiting US forces.

A renewed US military presence at Subic, however, would generate more jobs and raise additional free port revenue at a crucial time when many Filipinos and businesses are still struggling to recover from two years of Covid-19 lockdowns and an economic recession wrought by coronavirus outbreaks, Mr Paulino said.

About the size of Singapore, the former American Navy base at Subic with its deep harbours, ship repair yard and huge warehouses was used to support the US war effort in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s. It was shut down and transformed into a commercial free port and recreational complex in 1992 after the Philippines' Senate rejected an extension to the US lease.

Updated: February 08, 2023, 4:08 PM