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28 June 2013

US access to Subic eyed

DEFENSE Secretary Voltaire Gazmin yesterday said government is crafting an agreement that will allow American forces to regain access to their former naval base in Subic.

He said the Americans will not be putting up military bases in the country.

Asked about reports that the military has revived plans to build new air and naval bases at Subic Bay, Gazmin said: “Let me clarify issues. We’re not going to construct bases. We will be accepting access. Right now, the agreement has not been firmed up. We are in the process of crafting the agreement relative to our Constitution and the Visiting Forces Agreement.”

The VFA, ratified by the Senate in 1999, allows US forces full access to Philippine bases.

Reuters, quoting senior Navy officials on revived plans, said the bases would allow the Philippines to station warships and fighter jets just 124 nautical miles from Scarborough Shoal, a contentious area of the South China Sea now controlled by China after a tense standoff last year.

It also said the proposed bases in the Philippines coincides with a resurgence of US warships, planes and personnel in the region as Washington turns its attention to a newly assertive China and shifts its foreign, economic and security policy towards Asia.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, asked about the Subic plan, urged China’s neighbors to push for peace.

“China urges the Philippines and regional countries to meet one another halfway, make joint efforts to maintain mutual trust between countries, make positive efforts towards regional peace and security and play a constructive role,” said ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

Gazmin, last April while there was tension in the Korean peninsula, said US forces might be allowed access to Philippine bases in case of “extreme emergency.” He also said then that the US would not be allowed to put up bases because that is against the Constitution.

Gazmin, in an ambush interview after meeting yesterday with visiting Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, said after an agreement is crafted and if it is approved, “then there will be equipment coming in from the United States.”

“We have not talked about specific equipment yet but we do welcome the inclusion of a new technology, very new to us, so that this is part of our education,” said Gazmin.

On whether other countries like Japan would also be allowed access, Gazmin said: “We do welcome other countries, particularly Japan since Japan is a strategic partner, in accordance with our existing protocols.”

Onodera said he and Gazmin discussed during their meeting the US rebalancing program. He acknowledged that the US presence in the region is “very important.”

“We agreed that Japan and Philippines will work together to make this rebalance a reality,” said Onodera.

“I have heard they (Philippines) are making efforts to further increase rotational deployment of the United States forces and I also heard or learned that the Philippine side is now discussing with United States further increase of United States presence in the Philippines,” he said.

Gazmin said the increased rotational presence of US forces can be done through “high value, high impact” exercises that are being regularly conducted by Filipino and US forces.

Defense department spokesman Peter Paul Galvez, asked to elaborate on Gazmin’s statement that an agreement allowing US forces to have access to their former naval base is being crafted, talked of a “plan” instead.

“A plan being made is the transfer of some PAF (Philippine Air Force) units to Subic. Moreover, Subic has deep water port for the warships Alcaraz and Del Pilar,” said Galvez, referring to the Hamilton-class cutters BRP Ramon Alcaraz and Gregorio del Pilar acquired from the US.

“It is coincidental that Subic is near Bajo de Masinloc,” said Galvez, referring to Scarborough Shoal.

“It is to allow access to our military facilities to strategic partners,” said Galvez, without elaborating on the extent of the access that is being planned to be given to the US.

MIX-UP?

Asked what will be the difference between the “access” being given to US forces now and that being planned, Galvez said: “The two issues are being mixed up. First, what is being studied is the implementation of the US increased rotational presence under the VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement). `Access’ is one of the modalities we are exploring to implement the increased rotational presence. Re Subic, the AFP is studying relocating units in some portions of Subic for strategic defense purposes.”

Subic, a deep-water port sheltered by jungle-clad mountains, has been a special economic zone since US forces were evicted in 1992, ending 94 years of American military presence in the Philippines and shutting the largest US military installation in Southeast Asia.

Since then, American warships and planes have been allowed to visit the Philippines for maintenance and re-fuelling.

US military “rotations” through the Philippines have become more frequent as Beijing grows more assertive in the South China Sea.

Reuters quoted the senior military officials as saying they believe the plan has a strong chance of winning approval as Aquino seeks to upgrade the country’s decrepit forces.

Another Philippine navy officer said the arrival in a few weeks of a second Hamilton-class cutter from the United States would put pressure on the navy to find a suitable port for large warships.

Since 2002, US forces helping fight al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in Mindanao have shared several bases with Philippine troops.

US Navy surveillance planes are allocated spaces in a local air force base at Clark.

“We’ve seen a lot of similar ‘joint use’ arrangement. The US does not want bases, only access,” a Navy captain familiar with the Subic proposal told Reuters.

“We will share our bases with them and I am sure the US would love them.”

URGENCY

Congress last year approved $1.8 billion for military modernization, with the bulk going to acquisition of ships, aircraft, and equipment such as radar. The military had raised the plan in the past, but is now pushing it with more urgency following a series of naval stand-offs with China.

“The chances of this plan taking off under President Aquino are high because his administration has been very supportive in terms of equipment upgrade,” said a senior military officer who asked not to be identified.

“The people around him understood our needs and more importantly, what our country is facing at this time.”

A 30-hectare area has been identified for the bases, which would station fighter jets and the Philippines’ biggest warships that patrol the disputed sea, including the Hamilton-class cutter ships BRP del Pilar which arrived the country in 2011 and BRP Ramon Alcaraz which is expect to arrive next month.

The plan has taken on added urgency since the tense two-month standoff last year at the Scarborough Shoal. Chinese ships now control the shoal, often chasing away Filipino fishermen.

The South China Sea dispute will again loom large over regional diplomacy next week when US Secretary of State John Kerry joins his counterparts from Southeast Asian nations and China among other countries for an annual meeting in Brunei.

The Philippines plans to raise the issue of Chinese ships’ “encroachment” near another disputed coral reef where Manila recently beefed up its small military presence, diplomatic sources told Reuters. China in turn has accused the Philippines of “illegal occupation” of the reef, which is a strategic gateway to an area believed to be rich in oil and natural gas.

THEME PARK SHELVED

Roberto Garcia, chairman of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, which oversees the Subic Bay Freeport, confirmed the plan to build the new bases, saying he had shelved plans in the area for a theme park to make way for it.

“I don’t see any problem if the government wants to build an air and naval base in the Freeport area,” Garcia said, noting the increase in the number of US military port calls to Subic.

This year alone, 72 US warships and submarines visited Subic, compared with 88 for all of 2012, 54 in 2011 and 51 in 2010, according to official data.

CUBI POINT

The Philippine military also wants to revive an airstrip that once handled some of the largest military aircraft in the US arsenal. The former Cubi Point Naval Air Station, carved out of a mountain adjoining Subic, served FedEx Corp cargo plans after the US forces withdrew.

But FedEx ceased operations at the airstrip, now called Subic Bay International Airport, in 2009. Two senior Air Force officers told Reuters the military had proposed to Aquino to convert parts of the airstrip into an air base. (Victor Reyes, Malaya - With Reuters)

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