US, Phl mull potential restoration of bases

Invoking the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty – acknowledging and repeatedly stressing its applicability in the West Philippine Sea (a Philippine proposition earlier rejected by the Obama administration) – the United States appears to be angling to use Subic Bay once more as its naval base in this part of the world.

After the Philippine Senate voted in 1991 to reject the continued presence of American bases, Subic is now a freeport, with a 300-hectare shipyard that was built in 2006 by the South Korean firm Hanjin. Considered in 2015 as one among the top 10 shipbuilders in the world, Hanjin was sold to US-based Cerberus Capital Management in 2020 in the wake of the Korean company’s financial troubles. (It is now known as the Agila Subic Shipyard.)

Cerberus appears to have entered the picture to foil a move by Chinese investors to buy the facility, according to a report last year citing an unnamed “security official.”

It was “very opportune that the (US) came into the picture,” Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez candidly admitted in a forum early this month. “We would like to have more economic activity between the Philippines and China, being a neighbor, but we were also quite disturbed by the fact that they came in very strongly wanting to take over that project.”

The shipyard could soon see the presence of US Navy ships because an American defense contractor, Vectrus Inc., has set up shop there. Earlier, in May last year, the Philippine Navy had leased the shipyard’s northern part to set up a naval operations base.

Security cooperation and “issues related to the South China Sea” were the core issues tackled at a four-day meeting held in Manila last week, billed as the 10th Bilateral Strategic Dialogue. In a joint statement, the Philippine and US foreign affairs and defense panels highlighted Subic Bay as “priority site” for “high quality, private sector-led infrastructure investment as a means of supporting Philippine economic growth and enhancing connectivity in the Philippines.”

But the visits by US Ambassador MaryKay Carlson last November and, last week, by Lindsay Ford, the US defense deputy assistant secretary for South and Southeast Asia, showed their specific interest in the shipyard. Notably, Ford was joined by Maj. Gen. Chris McPhillips, the US Indo-Pacific Command’s director of strategic planning and policy directorate. That move aroused more curiosity over the US military’s plans on how to maximize use of the shipyard.

Besides the Subic project, the US is hurrying up the completion of building facilities inside five selected Philippine military bases: three in Luzon, one in the Visayas and one in Mindanao. Purpose: to enable, as soon as possible, the US armed forces to store war equipment and other materials in these facilities.

The five sites, however, seem not enough for the US, as it presses for hastening the verification of “additional agreed locations” for the same purpose.

On this point, DFA Undersecretary Teresita Lazaro clarified that “we agreed to finalize the procedures for the additional agreed locations. In fact, it is a work in progress.”

Lazaro co-headed the Philippine panel with Defense Undersecretary Angelito de Leon. The US panel was co-headed by Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Ford representing the defense department.

One can easily see that, in effect, the US facilities would be mini-military bases within Philippine bases, wherein US and not Philippine jurisdiction would prevail.

Note that under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), such facilities would be strictly controlled by American forces and off-limits to Filipinos. EDCA is the executive agreement that implements the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement or VFA, which allowed the rotational stay of US troops – numbering 600 per batch – in the country throughout a year.

Last week’s 10th Bilateral Strategic Dialogue was intended to “facilitate focused and sustained inter-agency coordination, planning and implementation of action plans on priority areas.” The 9th BSD, held in Washington DC, came out with a “Joint Vision for a 21st Century United States-Philippines Partnership,” which Ambassador Romualdez said “outlined several areas of cooperation aimed at boosting security and economic ties” in the face of “current realities and challenges.”

Besides the above-cited moves, at the 10th BSD, the two panels agreed on the following:

• The US will host a “maritime dialogue” this year to identify potential points of maritime activities;

• The Philippines will take steps to “streamline technology transfer” and develop a “road map for defenses mobilization;”

• Aside from the BSD, defense and foreign affairs ministers of both countries will hold their “two-plus-two ministerial dialogue” – the third since 2012 and 2016 – and stage a “policy-centric tabletop exercise” by the third quarter of 2023. Supposedly intended to ensure “more coordinated responses to potential flashpoints,” no further details were provided.

• Set a year-end target for the conclusion of their General Security of Military Information Agreement to help simplify technological transfers of their respective defense units; and

• Reconvene the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement meetings that apparently have been temporarily sidelined.

Ambassador Romualdez has also disclosed that in the past few months, “we have been discussing with the White House a possible visit by President Marcos to Washington.” The objective, he wrote, is “to further cement the ties between the longtime allies on various areas of mutual concern and interest. We hope to find a suitable schedule for both our leaders to meet this year.”

Last Thursday, in a television interview, Romualdez couldn’t help turning up the volume on the trumpets and drums that the current administration has been deploying to promote its initiatives.

Certain US officials are impressed by Marcos Jr., according to him. “They find it refreshing, to say the least. They’ve obviously seen him when they came here… and they were very pleased to hear the things that the president has articulated, especially with regard to our relationship with the US.”

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Published in Philippine Star
January 28, 2023

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