The destroyer Stockdale moors pierside in Subic Bay on Feb. 5. More Navy ships could head to the Philippines if a deal is reached to expand U.S. presence there. (MC2 David Hooper / Navy)
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Filipino spectators watch the amphibious assault ship Belleau Wood leave Cubi Point in 1992 as it carries the last group of some 500 Marines from Subic Bay to Okinawa. (Romeo Gacad / AFP via Getty Images)
Your chances to visit historic Subic Bay, once a favorite port of call, are increasing.
The U.S. and the Philippines are negotiating to expand the presence of American warships and service members at Filipino bases, deepening an already close alliance and providing the fleet door-step access to the contested South China Sea.
The talks center on an “access agreement” that would allow the Navy to dispatch ships more often to Subic Bay; to store spare parts, supplies and hardware there that would be useful in a crisis; and to temporarily base sailors and Marines there.
The presence of U.S. forces in the Philippines is still a touchy issue two decades after the U.S. left its huge and long-standing bases there, such as Naval Station Subic Bay and Clark Air Base. Officials with both countries say the push is part of an attempt to work more closely together — not an invitation to re-establish the bases.
The government of the Philippines is “working with us as we look at, you know, potential access agreements down the road,” said Adm. Samuel Locklear, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, in a July 11 Pentagon briefing. “They’re always going to ask the question, ‘Is the U.S. going to re-open Subic or Clark?’ And I say, the U.S. isn’t going to open anymore bases in the Asia-Pacific.”
“We’re not in that business,” Locklear said.
Ship visits to the Philippines are on the rise. The U.S. is training more with the Filipino military and is using Subic Bay as a logistics hub, as with the June visit of attack submarine Asheville and submarine tender Frank Cable. Port visits to the Philippines increased from 54 in 2011 to 88 in 2012 and continue to rise, according to the news agency Reuters.
Subic Bay holds a hallowed place in naval history. A fleet commanded by Commodore George Dewey seized it in 1898 by destroying the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay. (The famous phrase, “You may fire when ready, Gridley,” dates to Dewey’s open-fire order to cruiser commanding officer Capt. Charles Gridley.)
The U.S. presence reached its heyday during the Vietnam War, when Subic Bay’s piers and anchorages were used as a repair, refueling and rest-and-recuperation stop for as many as hundreds of ships each month. Mechanics repaired carrier-based aircraft at Naval Air Station Cubi Point.
But the U.S. pulled out of all its bases — some of its largest overseas — in 1992 after the Philippine Senate rejected a plan to extend a basing treaty signed in 1947. Various reasons were cited, including concerns over nuclear weapons passing through the region, the end of the Soviet Union as a Cold War threat, and the notion that the U.S. presence harkened back to the days of colonialism.
Return and refocus
Now, with the Pentagon’s strategic focus shifting to the Pacific, the Filipino bases are an ideal stopping point that’s roughly 1,000 miles west of Guam, where four ships are homeported. It also boosts the defensive posture of the Filipinos, who are locked in a territorial dispute with China over the South China Sea.
“With this recognition of an existential threat from China, I think there’s much more interest in having the United States presence,” said retired Air Force Col. Carl Baker, a Hawaii-based defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Baker said he believes the agreement likely would lead to more ship-repair work getting done in Subic Bay and more exercises with the Filipino navy. He estimated that the Marines dispatched there would number a few thousand at most and would rotate over for no more than six months at a time.
Baker said he anticipates the agreement may entail more berths for U.S. warships, but added that Subic Bay is highly commercial and will “stay largely focused on ship-servicing.”
Exact details on the basing proposals remain guarded in diplomatic channels. Asked how many ships and sailors the agreement may bring to the Philippines, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Pacific Command would only say that the basing would “enable temporary access to Philippine military facilities.”
A spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs declined to answer questions.
Whatever the final level, the additional basing is intended to boost training between the countries and to depot supplies in case of a crisis.
“An access agreement would increase opportunities for joint military training and exercises and allow the pre-positioning of equipment and supplies enabling us to respond quickly to disasters,” a State Department spokeswoman said in an email.