The Philippines is building a new naval base in the South China Sea amid growing tensions with China, Philippine officials told local and international media outlets for the first time last week.
The new naval base will be located on Oyster Bay, “a postcard-perfect cove on Palawan Island,” according to Reuters. Oyster Bay is 550 km (340 miles) southwest of Manila, the Filipino capital* city, and just 160 km (100 miles) from the Spratly Islands, a fiercely contested area in the South China Sea.
Talking to Reuters about the Oyster Bay base for the first time last week, Commodore Joseph Rostum O. Peña, commander of the Philippines’ western navy, said “It will be a mini-Subic,” a reference to the large air and naval bases the U.S. used to maintain in the Philippines before the parliament voted to expel Washington from the country in 1991. It was the United States’ largest military installation in Southeast Asia.
The Philippines is currently modernizing the Subic Bay Naval Base, which sits on the eastern side of the Philippines away from the South China Sea. The U.S. and the Philippines are currently negotiating a new bilateral agreement that will give U.S. naval forces greater access to Subic and other parts of the Philippines.
Oyster Bay, located on the western side of the Philippines closer to the South China Sea, is likely to be one of those places. Philippine President Benigno Aquino has approved initial funds of nearly US$11.6 million to construct the new base, which is expected to be ready by the time he leaves office in 2016.
Calling the base a “capability upgrade,” Peña told the local newspaper, The Inquirer, that the funding would come out of the US$1.8 billion President Aquino has vowed to spend on modernizing the Philippines’ Armed Forces before his term ends in 2016.
The Inquirer said that the Philippines was installing various radar outposts around the base to allow the military to better monitor events in the South China Sea.
“The coastal watch program should allow us eventually to monitor our seas in real time,” Peña said.
Once completed, the base should hold “at least four large naval vessels,” Peña told The Inquirer.
Two of these ships will likely be four-decade-old Hamilton-class cutters the Philippines has purchased from the U.S. in recent years. These are the largest ships in the vastly underfinanced Philippine navy.
Reuters said that the purchase of these two cutters was the proximate impetus behind President Aquino’s decision to reactivate old plans to transform Oyster Bay into a naval base. However, the report went on to say that the base would ultimately host U.S. naval and other military assets. Patrick Cronin, the director of the Asia-Pacific program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), said that limited funding from the U.S. defense budget’s contingency funds could be allocated to help with the construction of the naval base at Oyster Bay, which experts estimate will cost well over the US$11.6 million dollars the Philippines has approved.
Reports that the U.S. will have access to the base are consistent with reports in Japan’s Kyodo News Service last month, which cited an unnamed Philippine maritime official as saying that U.S. Marines are building advanced command posts on Palawan Island to monitor the South China Sea.
“The plan is to station 50 to 60 American marines in Palawan as an advance command post in the region,” the official told Kyodo.
The report went on to say: “The officer said the 1.1 kilometer airstrip inside the reservation will be extended to 2.4 km to accommodate big U.S. military transport planes.”
The U.S. and Philippine militaries also conducted a mock amphibious landing in the area during recent joint drills.
One obstacle to the construction of the Oyster Bay base could be local opposition. Oyster Bay is rich in marine resources and Palawan Island locals tell reporters that the Philippines Navy has already prohibited them from continuing to fish in the area.
One local resident told Reuters that four of the five local village chiefs in the area oppose the base because they fear that bars and brothels will spring up alongside the U.S. naval base, as allegedly happened near Subic Bay.
“They are afraid the young women will become prostitutes,” the local resident was quoted as saying.
*Spelling corrected. Thank you to reader Randal for pointing out the error.