The American military will likely return to Subic Bay, 30 years after leaving what was once their largest military base in Asia, due to concerns over China’s increasing maritime assertiveness, the top official of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority told a Japanese news agency.
Rolen Paulino, chairman of the SBMA, told Kyodo News on Wednesday that he would be “very surprised” if Subic Bay does not become a site under the Philippine-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
This was as “during war, time is of the essence,” Paulino said, a day before the 30th anniversary of the US Navy’s departure from the harbor off the west coast of Luzon island that it had controlled for nearly 94 years.
The former US Naval Base Subic Bay, which faces the South China Sea, has become a bustling free port that employs about 150,000 locals, administered by the SBMA.
Manila and Washington have been in negotiations over setting up five more locations in the Philippines to build US military facilities and preposition weapons under the EDCA.
A series of events were held Thursday at the free port to mark the 30th Founding Anniversary of the SBMA, including a public display of civilian airplanes and a Philippine Navy helicopter at the Subic airport, which is now being repurposed for surveillance and aviation training.
Signed in 2014, the EDCA is likely to continue beyond its 10-year period, as indicated by the renewed US interest in establishing new bases in the Philippines and fresh funding for upgrading existing EDCA sites, ABS-CBN News reported.
Paulino said tensions over the Taiwan Strait and the growing animosity between the US and China are causes for concern.
A former mayor of the adjacent Olongapo City, Paulino would prefer that his government maintains a defense alliance with the US, adding that most Olongapo residents are “pro-Americans” given the long time they have lived alongside US servicemen.
On Nov. 9, US Ambassador to the Philippines Mary Kay Carlson visited Subic Bay and the shipyard that US private firm Cerberus Capital Management LP acquired this year.
The Philippine Navy has also begun occupying part of the shipyard as its new naval base.
Paulino believes Carlson’s visit amplifies the importance of Subic Bay to the United States.
A senior Philippine official said two Chinese firms had wanted to take control of the shipyard, but the United States had stepped in.
The Philippines and China have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, a mineral-rich and vital shipping lane through which $3 trillion worth of trade passes annually.