MANILA — The Philippines may shift key air and naval assets to a former US naval base to boost its response time to waters contested by China, officials said Monday.
Subic Bay, which faces the strategically important South China Sea, was a major US naval facility until 1992, when it was converted into a busy freeport by the Philippine government.
“The discussions are preliminary, but utilizing Subic for our local navy could ideally be very strategic,” said navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Fabic. “It is a natural deep sea port that can accommodate the warships.”
Department of Defense spokesman Peter Paul Galvez also confirmed the plan, which would include the transfer of two key warships acquired from the US.
He said the naval headquarters near Manila would soon be privatized, while an airport near Subic that was being used by the air force was to undergo expansion soon.
“With this, Subic has been determined as the best alternative for the planned transfer,” Galvez told AFP.
“Subic has a deep water port for the two (warships), it has an existing runway and airport facilities,” he added.
The Philippine military, considered one of the weakest in the region, has been relying on excess US military articles to boost its capability.
In 2011, it acquired a decommissioned US coastguard cutter and transformed it into its naval flagship called Gregorio del Pilar. A sister ship, the Ramon Alcaraz, is to arrive later this week.
Both are the most modern of the Philippine fleet and are mainly to be used to patrol sea borders to counter perceived Chinese military build up in the region.
The Philippine government last month also said it was drafting a plan allowing joint use of its bases with the United States and Japan, another country that is separately locked in a bitter sea dispute with China.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters close to its smaller neighbors. The dispute has long been considered a potential flashpoint of conflict in the region.
The Chinese have effectively gained control of Scarborough Shoal after the Philippine navy backed down following a standoff last year.
The shoal is near Subic and lies just 230 kilometers (140 miles) west of the main island of Luzon.
“(The move to) Subic is to address all our security and defense concerns in Luzon and surrounding maritime domain,” Galvez said.
Subic, along with the nearby Clark Airbase, were key facilities for the United States during World War II.
They provided logistical support during the Vietnam War in the 1970s and remained of strategic importance during the Cold War.
Clark closed in 1991 after nearby Mount Pinatubo volcano erupted, covering the base in ash and making it unusable. The last US ship sailed out of Subic a year later.