Back to the Future: The U.S. Navy Returns to The Philippines

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Back to the Future: The U.S. Navy Returns to The Philippines

A return to a familiar port of call serves as another reminder of the United States continued “rebalance” towards Asia.

U.S. and Philippine officials recently confirmed that Subic Bay – a natural harbor 80 km north of Manila that was the US 7th Fleet’s home until 1992 – is going to be playing a much larger role in U.S. Pacific Fleet deployments from now on.

The former U.S. naval port and its air station, now known as Subic Bay Freeport Zone, is set to host U.S. ships, marines and aircraft on a semi-permanent basis. To compare it to a relationship: the U.S. isn’t moving back in, but it’s going to be leaving a few things at the apartment. And it’s a bit more than just a toothbrush.

“There are very few ports that can accommodate naval assets and naval carriers, and one of them is Subic,” said Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Visiting Forces Agreement Director Edilberto Adan, who was speaking to reporters aboard USS Bonhomme Richard, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship. Bonhomme Richard was just one U.S. ship that was at Subic Freeport in preparation for PHIBLEX 2013 – a 10-day annual amphibious exercise involving U.S. and Philippine Marines that began its 29th iteration earlier this month.

Adan explicitly linked Subic to the U.S. military’s much-heralded shift of emphasis to the Pacific theatre. “As the U.S. begins to implement [the rebalance], Subic will play an important role because it is one of the important facilities that can service its presence in the Pacific,” he said.

In some ways, the increase in troop and platform rotations is similar to the deal that the U.S. and Australia unveiled in November 2011 that will eventually see 2,500 U.S. Marines train in Darwin. Unlike that arrangement, however, Subic will be hosting a lot of U.S. hardware and will also act as a support and servicing facility for the U.S. Navy. AMSEC, a subsidiary of U.S. shipbuilder Huntingdon Ingalls Industries announced in April that it would set up a maintenance, repair, and logistics hub at Subic using facilities owned by Korean shipbuilder Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction (HHIC).

At the time, AMSEC’s Mark Balmert told IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly that “Subic Bay was attractive to the navy in past years because of location and costs, and we are hopeful that it will be in the future as well.”

This announcement, like any strategic change, prompts a number of questions on its true significance.

It’s possible to see the decision as a natural development of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that Manila signed with the United States in 1999. That agreement, which was not without its opponents in the Philippines and came only seven years after Subic had closed down as a U.S. base, was first invoked in 2002 when U.S. special forces arrived in support of Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’, working alongside the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and other Islamist groups in the south of the country.

That said, sources in Manila say that Subic Bay has been open to U.S. forces for a while now and it regularly hosts port visits by Pacific Fleet ships and submarines. Drills like PHIBLEX and Balakitan, another annual joint amphibious exercise, also suggest this is more of an evolution than a revolution in U.S. operations in the area. In Adan’s words, “the U.S. will not return to the bases they gave up in 1991, but they will be here regularly and are welcome here.”

Where there are changes is in the frequency of these interactions and the amount of the equipment the U.S. will store on the ground. Along with rotating ships through the port, the U.S. will use Subic Bay International Airport, which used to be Naval Air Station Cubi Point, for forward-deployed bulk storage: the tents, blankets, generators and other materials it needs for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations, among other missions. The AFP is also reactivating military operations out of the airport, which has a few civilian operators but also boasts plenty of room for dual use.

U.S. military spokesmen in the region are at great pains to emphasize the role HADR missions play in the U.S.-Philippines mil-to-mil relationship, especially when images of marines practicing beach landings are transmitted over the internet. They have a point: the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the March 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami all illustrated the value – and importance – of U.S. military logistics in saving civilian lives. It is a message that is shared by regional allies: Singapore’s minister for defense has said that the city state’s hosting of four U.S. Navy Littoral Combat Ships is predicated on the need for militaries to act as first responders in a natural disaster, especially since the global economic crisis has the reduced budgets and therefore the capacity of other government departments and non-governmental organizations to respond quickly.

What will this do for the U.S.-Philippine Alliance?

Only good things, if you believe officials on both sides. For the Philippines, a semi-permanent U.S. presence at Subic Bay bolsters its strategic importance and security while giving it some cover as it seeks to create an indigenous “deterrent force with an effective but minimal defense capability” in the words of President Benigno Aquino. Aquino’s government is rushing to modernize the country’s navy and air force, which have suffered from years of material neglect due to mismanagement, corruption, and under resourcing.

The  U.S. is aiding in this effort by selling the Philippines more advanced arms like U.S. Coast Guard cutters (Philippine Navy Chief Vice Admiral Alexander Pama announced the purchase of a second Hamilton-class cutter at the PHIBLEX opening ceremony). Nonetheless, as Manila is pursuing this modernization it will welcome the presence of the world’s premier blue-water navy in case, for example, its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea should escalate. Ever since the dispute with China at Scarborough Shoal last spring, officials in Manila have been seeking to emphasize the importance of their “treaty ally.” As Filipino Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin put it following the first ever U.S.-Philippines 2+2 Dialogue in April, “After watching our alliance endure through the years, we deem it crucial to prepare for the security challenges of today and tomorrow.”

For the United States, another semi-permanent haven in the Philippines is a welcome option.  Already the 7th Fleet is home-ported in Japan, has four LCS headed for Singapore, is building a presence on the northern Australian coast, and is redeploying forces and ships from Okinawa to Guam. The Philippines thus adds another dimension to the United States’ increasingly dispersed regional force posture. Indeed, the geographical location of the Subic Bay holds great strategic value as evident from Washington turning it into the largest U.S. overseas naval base overbuilt. Having greater access to it will therefore give Washington a stronger basis from which to maintain its stated objectives of free trade and freedom of navigation.

What does it mean for the rest of Southeast Asia – and China?

The increased visibility of the U.S. relationship with the Philippines will surprise no-one in SE Asia. What greater access to the port does do is reinforce the U.S. role as “the balancer of first resort” in the region, to quote the words of James Holmes, who pointed out last month that China “has wantonly squandered the reserves of goodwill it accumulated in Asian capitals” with some less-than cunning diplomacy.

As July’s fractious ASEAN summit illustrated, however, China still has strong supporters in the area and it would be highly misleading to suggest that the U.S. enjoys a monopoly on goodwill. However, it is equally undeniable that China’s mishandling of its relations with neighbors and its strident tone regarding territorial disputes has ensured that the Obama administration’s “pivot” – of which the Subic Bay agreement is one element – has received a much warmer welcome than might have otherwise been the case.

James Hardy is Asia-Pacific Editor of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.