Technically, it is not a military base but US warships can come and go anytime in a civilian facility in its former naval base in Subic Bay.
In November 1992, the last US warship departed from Subic Naval Base, one of Washington’s largest overseas forward operating bases after the Philippine Senate voted to abrogate the 1947 Military Bases Agreement.
Nationalists rejoiced at the removal of the last vestiges of American imperialism in the country, a symbolic victory of Philippine sovereignty. But at what cost?
Three years later, without US presence in the country, China squatted on a half-submerged shoal in the Spratly. Twenty years later, the make-shift fisherman’s shelter on Mischief Shoal had expanded into an artificial island with a three-kilometer-long runway and secured ports.
It has become a virtual fortress, choking resupply routes for the Philippine garrisons in the Kalayaan Group of Islands in the South China Sea.
As China asserts its sovereignty claims in the area and its influence slowly grows in the region, the United States is expanding its military presence in the region, scattering its forces across the Indo-Pacific to counter China’s rise.
It was only natural for the United States to reclaim Subic Bay to tighten its own imaginary defense line in the region. The Philippines is the missing link in the Pacific line, which stretches from South Korea and Japan in the north to Singapore and Australia in the south. There would be a gaping hole in the middle if the Philippines is not included in the defense chain.
This month, barely three decades after it left Subic Bay. The Americans would be coming back.
There will be no permanent bases but there could be permanent presence under a commercial deal struck by the US Navy not with the Philippine government but with an American military contractor that will repair and service US Navy vessels.
In the past, US Navy carriers, submarines and other ships docked at Subic Bay’s civilian ports during regular port visits, which are allowed under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
These vessels would stay for a week or two, giving its crew enough time for rest and recreation and passing exercises with the local navy.
The ships would also dock during annual “Balikatan” exercises or other drills, like “Kamandag,” a Marines-led activity. Normally these exercises had an amphibious landing activity or a ship-to-shore operations demonstration.
The Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) has signed a 50-year deal with a giant American investment company, Cerberus Capital Management, to take over the facilities left behind by Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction, which went bankrupt in 2019.
Cerberus will be the main locator in SBMA. It will look for subcontractors, which include a company servicing US Navy vessels. Hanjin left behind a facility that is excellent for ship repairs.
Subic is a better area for ship repair than tiny Singapore. It offers a strategic location for the US Navy to preposition vessels closer to flash point areas in the region, including the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits.
The US Navy has a better excuse to deploy ships in Subic other than for military exercises. In a way, the US Navy can have a major surface combatant ship ready at any given time in Subic, increasing the frequency of its presence in the country.
Before the deal and after the termination of the US bases agreement, about 100 to 120 US Navy ships made port calls in Subic in a year.
The Cerberus deal may also see the US Army operating a logistics hub in the southwest of the Hanjin yard, occupying warehouses to preposition disaster relief and exercise supplies and equipment.
The US Army had no huge presence in the Philippines before. It only has Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija for exercises and training.
The US Navy’s 7th Fleet was homeported in Subic and the 13th US Air Force in Clark Air Base.
But the Air Force was the first to gain access to local military bases through the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), allowing US planes to land and take off in four local air bases In Pampanga, Palawan, Cebu and Cagayan de Oro. US surveillance planes – P3C-Orion and P8 Poseidon – have been using Clark to operate in the South China Sea even before EDCA was signed.
Clark Field, which has become a commercial and industrial area after July 1992, was not included in the deal.
Former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was instrumental in allowing US presence in areas outside military bases when she supported the US’s war on terror in 2003.
US warplanes returning to Japan from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean were refueled in Cebu, Clark or Batanes. Residents in Basco were sometimes awakened at night by the noise and bright lights from helicopters lighting the runway to guide F-16s for refueling operations.
The entire Philippines has become a military base for US aircraft and ships as the US needs to main forward bases and keeps on evolving.
Permanent bases are out of the question because of financial and political costs. These permanent facilities are also vulnerable to missile attacks from adversaries.
Kurt Campbell, the US security point man in Asia, wanted to disperse US forces in the Indo-Pacific region and keep them mobile and make it difficult for hostile states to target US forces.
In the past, the US struck deals with Ecuador to use an abandoned base as a co-location for its anti-drug operations in South America. It is not US base, but US forces can co-locate in a facility owned by the host country.
In the southern Philippines, during the war on terror, US forces kept bases inside local bases in Zamboanga City, Marawi City and in Basilan.
There was even a proposal for the US Air Force to lease an area in the Philippines because US warplanes were concentrated in Japan and South Korea. There was no need for a lease after EDCA was signed.
A squadron of F-16 fighters regularly trains and exercises in the Crow Valley area under the Bilateral Air Contingent Exercise-Philippines (BACE-P). Crow Valley in Tarlac is a one-of-a-kind air gunnery exercise area in the region.
The Cerberus deal is another approach to expanding US presence in the region in general and in the Philippines in particular.
President Rodrigo Duterte attempted to bring the country close to China and cut back engagements with the United States. He did not succeed. the United States presence has increased and more permanently without keeping a military base.