Earlier this week, Reuters reported that the Philippine armed forces chief had said in an interview that the construction of a new naval base opposite the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea was “a top priority.”
Plans for constructing a base in Oyster Bay in Palawan – located around 100 miles from the Spratly Islands – date back years and were first publicly announced back in 2013. But the renewed urgency recently expressed by General Gregorio Catapang, Jr., the head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), makes sense given Manila’s alarm about China’s behavior in the South China Sea. China is currently carrying out rapid land reclamation activities in seven reefs and recently warned Philippine air force and navy planes at least six times to leave areas around the Spratlys in the past week. It has also refused to participate in the case the Philippines filed against it with the arbitral tribunal at The Hague. As Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario recently put it in remarks earlier this week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, from Manila’s perspective, “we must do something quickly.”
The specifics of the new naval base are still unclear. Philippine officials had previously indicated that the base could hold a few large naval vessels, including potentially the Hamilton-class cutters Manila purchased from the United States as well as some U.S. vessels. There has also been talk about setting up a repair and construction yard as well as operational command posts with radar systems to monitor the situation in the South China Sea. Beyond this infrastructure, military officials have said that possessing a base so close to the South China Sea would also enable the AFP to drastically shorten the travel time of its vessels and minimize fuel and other logistical costs, as well as boost the morale of troops stationed nearby.
There have also been suggestions that there might be a role for the United States to play in developing it in the future. What exactly that role involves, however, remains uncertain, particularly with the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) inked between the two sides yet to be signed off by the Supreme Court (See: “What’s Next for US-Philippine Military Ties?”). Catapang also emphasized in the interview that while the U.S. Navy could refuel and resupply at the base, it would be difficult to accommodate destroyers and aircraft carriers because of the bay’s relatively shallow water. He did, however, say that warships from the United States, Japan, Australia and Vietnam would be welcome to make port calls.
What is clear, however, is that it will take a lot for the Philippines to get there. Financially, as Catapang noted, while 800 million pesos would be needed for the initial development of the naval facility and then 5 billion pesos to turn it into a major operating base, funding bottlenecks continue to prevent this from turning into a reality. Infrastructure wise, as of now, Catapang admitted, “there is nothing there yet,” and Manila is still constructing an access road and upgrading the water and oil depots that would service ships. The initial goal was to complete some upgrades for the base before current president Benigno Aquino III leaves office in 2016, but Catapang suggested that there has been little headway made thus far.
Of course, the construction of Oyster Bay could speed up in the future. Previous reports have indicated that the United States may be able to provide some additional funding, while Japan, which has been boosting its security ties with Manila, could help fund infrastructure around the base but not the base itself (See: “Japan, Philippines Boost Defense Ties”). A verdict delivered on the Philippine case against China, expected by the first half of next year, may also spur Manila to make greater progress, especially if Beijing ignores the decision and continues or even steps up its assertiveness in the South China Sea. Time, as del Rosario noted, is not on Manila’s side.