A chat with US defense officials

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

One evening in San Francisco recently, as the weather was biting cold, I met an American citizen who gave our group a warm welcome in that vibrant city in Northern California.

Over dinner, our lovely acquaintance asked me and my fellow visiting Filipino journalists what we were doing in the US. We said we were part of the Friends, Partners, Allies program of the US embassy in Manila, which included learning about what the US was doing to strengthen relations with its allies, including the Philippines, amid a changing global landscape.

Our host then said she hopes that the Philippine government would allow the return of the US bases in Subic Bay in Olongapo. Some of us may still remember that Subic was the site of a major US facility about the size of Singapore at 262 square miles.

I don’t know for sure if American citizens share our American acquaintance’s sentiment.

It’s certainly a controversial proposition, considering that it took a lot of political will and energy on the part of the Philippine government, led by then president Corazon Aquino, to order the closure of US Naval Station Subic Bay in 1991, as perhaps a bold way of saying we were breaking away from our colonial past.

Thus, “on a steamy morning in November 1992,” writes journalist Bob Drogin for The Washington Post in a May 1, 2023 article, “a Marine honor guard hauled down and crisply folded” the Stars and Stripes at Subic Bay, closing down one of the oldest and largest overseas US military bases.

Left by the ship

American presence in Subic and Clark for decades was not without controversies, including the tens of thousands of children of US military men and Filipinas. They were called Amerasians who were “left by the ship” as the US ships sailed away with their American fathers.

Now, it’s hello again GIs, as Washington Post’s Drogin puts it.

Amid geopolitical tensions with China, the US is strengthening its relations with its allies, the Philippines included.

Here’s what we were told during a meeting with senior defense officials in Hawaii as part of our trip.

‘Lasting relationships’

Will US resurrect its naval base in Subic?

The short answer, says one of the officials we met, is that “there’s no plans to permanently station US forces in the Philippines.”

Explaining the current US posture further, another official said the current focus is on the EDCA or the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Arrangement, which allows American and Philippine troops to train together.

There are currently nine EDCA sites in the country: Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro City, Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu, Naval Base Camilo Osias in Sta. Ana in Cagayan, Lal-lo Airport also in Cagayan, Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu in Isabela and Balabac Island in Palawan.

Says our senior defense official sources:

“At these locations...(that) are all owned by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, we work to develop what we call a joint area development plan. So, we work with the military there to try to figure out what they want at those bases, and then if we were to use those bases to come in to help them, you know, where we can jointly have a facility. So, we jointly develop a plan for the Philippines’ bases. And I will say that, you know, the projects that we do in the Philippines, those are all Philippine companies that we use for construction, so it does help the Armed Forces of the Philippines. And it’s, again, about building those lasting relationships. Since we work largely with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, we try to have a great relationship with them.”

Pressed about any plans to return to Subic to put up a military base there, the official said, “that’s a policy question,” adding that the Philippine Constitution does not allow it.

“The goal of the posture is to make sure that the infrastructure is in place that can support US forces or, you know, coalition forces that may be needed if we want to execute the Mutual Defense Treaty. So, you know, if US forces were to use, on a temporary basis, a Philippine base, then we need buildings or runways that can support both of our aircraft.”

Some of the current bases, the US senior defense official said, need improved and longer runways, that kind of thing.

“And so, that’s some of the infrastructure projects that are going on.”

What happens next is anybody’s guess.

For now, the Subic Bay Freeport Zone is bustling with activities. President Marcos has announced the partnership of US firm Cerberus and shipbuilder Hyundai, saying it would enhance Subic’s position as a “hotspot” for economic activity, according to reports from the Palace on Monday.

Marcos said Cerberus has been “hard at work” to revitalize the Aguila Subic Shipyard since its acquisition of the facility two years ago.

The US company, Marcos said, has also worked closely with the Philippine Navy. Hyundai’s investment, meanwhile, would hopefully bring maritime manufacturing back to Subic and “restore the glory days of shipbuilding to our shores,” Marcos also said.

As I said, what happens next remains to be seen and we must keep a close watch on developments in the global arena, including tensions between the two superpowers, US and China, because the Philippines, no doubt, is part of this rapidly changing landscape.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen (Iris Gonzales) on Facebook.

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