January 4, 2023
SUBIC BAY, Philippines — Washington is increasingly viewing Manila as a key player in deterring Beijing, with an eye on possible contingencies in Taiwan and the East and South China Seas.
Following the shaking of the international order engendered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States is boosting its military cooperation with the Philippines.
The Philippine Navy is fully utilizing Subic Bay on the island of Luzon as a military base. A three-hour drive from Manila, the bay — from which U.S. forces withdrew 30 years ago — sits at a strategic point facing the South China Sea.
On Dec. 19, Philippine Navy vessels lined up in the inlet included state-of-the-art frigates and landing craft.
“We all know that China has been entering our waters and what they’ve been doing there,” Rolen Paulino, chairman of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, said the next day. “The water is deep here and it’s close to Taiwan, making it a key strategic point.”
The base was once one of the largest U.S. military bases in Asia, but the Washington withdrew in 1992 after the Philippine Senate rejected its continued presence the previous year. China later advanced into the South China Sea.
In recent years, the bay has again been the focus of attention as a military base. Following the U.S. forces’ withdrawal, the port was transformed into a special economic zone. But in response to China’s growing threat in the South China Sea, the Philippine Navy established a new base in the bay last May.
“We’re ready to accept the U.S. military,” Paulino said.
In 2016, Washington and Manila designated five bases that could be used by U.S. forces under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. However, relations deteriorated under former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and little progress was made in upgrading the facilities.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office in June 2022, and Manila announced in November that it would implement the upgrading of facilities over the next two years. The two countries plan to increase the number of military footholds in the Philippines, and it has been reported that about five new bases are being considered.
It has not yet been decided whether Subic will be designated for upgrading, but once such bases are improved, the U.S. military will be able to stockpile and maintain equipment in various locations across the Philippines and deploy troops more flexibly.
The U.S. is bolstering its ties with the Philippines due to the importance it attaches to beefing up the Southeast Asian country’s military capabilities. The Philippines has a relatively weak military compared to other Southeast Asian nations and its vigilance and surveillance capabilities are low. Japan and the United States maintain deterrence to the north of Taiwan, but if a “military power vacuum” were to occur in the south, it would become easier for Chinese aircraft and submarines to travel to and from the Pacific Ocean in the event of a contingency.
The U.S. military needs a base in the Philippines to monitor China’s forces around the Bashi Strait between the Philippines and Taiwan, said Collin Koh, a research fellow of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. In a contingency, there will be vigorous aircraft and ship activity in the strait, he added.
From March to April last year, the U.S. and the Philippines held a joint military exercise called Balikatan involving about 9,000 troops — the largest number in recent years — including amphibious units. The U.S. intends to continue to support the enhancement of the Philippines military.
In April last year, Japan and the Philippines held their first meeting of foreign and defense ministers in a so-called 2-plus-2 meeting in Tokyo, agreeing to consider the possibility of an agreement that would facilitate the exchange of Self-Defense Force and Philippine military units.
On Dec. 6, Air Self-Defense Force F-15 fighter jets were dispatched to the Philippines for the first time as part of these unit-to-unit exchanges, and on Dec. 11, visiting commanders of the armies of the United States and the Philippines, and the chief of staff of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force, held a meeting.
Underlying the accelerated cooperation between the three countries is a recognition that a crisis in Taiwan will no longer be “someone else’s problem,” in light of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
“And as long as we remain number one,” U.S. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in November referring to the U.S. military, “then we will deter the war that people worry about, a great power war between China and the United States.”
Milley added: “There are a lot of lessons learned coming out of the Ukrainian war…there’s lessons learned that President Xi [Jinping] and the Chinese military are learning.”