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Manila plans to reposition troops to counter China
Publication Date : 29-07-2013
The Philippine government plans to move major navy and air force camps to a former United States naval base at Subic Bay to gain faster access to waters being contested by China.
Analysts say the move will also benefit the US and other allies, which would get access to a strategic deep-water port calibrated for military use.
The Philippines is also backing Washington's efforts to reassert its military presence in Asia as a counterweight to China's rise.
Details of the relocation to Subic were revealed by The Associated Press yesterday, based on an interview with the country's Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
"It is for the protection of our West Philippine Sea," said Gazmin, using the government's name for waters in the South China Sea that it claims are Philippine maritime territory. "We are looking now for the funding."
The announcement comes on the heels of a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan, another nation wary of China's territorial ambitions, is offering loans to the Philippine navy to build 10 coast guard patrol boats as both countries confront China in separate territorial disputes.
Last year, after a stand-off lasting weeks with a Chinese surveillance ship, Philippine vessels left the disputed Scarborough Shoal, ceding control of the vast fishing ground off the country's northwest to China.
The Philippines has turned to the United Nations for international arbitration to counter China's claims. It is also trying to modernise its ageing air and naval assets.
Defence expert Clarita Carlos, a political science professor at University of the Philippines, said the relocation plan is aimed at leveraging the country's limited military capability to deal with China. Subic Bay is just 124 nautical miles from Scarborough Shoal.
"But in the larger scheme, it is more important for the Philippines to increase its defence cooperation with the United States, Japan and other countries in the region, particularly in allowing them to use the country's military bases," she said.
Professor Rommel Banlaoi, an expert on the South China Sea dispute, said there have been longstanding plans to relocate military camps in metropolitan Manila, including the sprawling Camp Aguinaldo headquarters of the 120,000-strong Philippine armed forces.
It sits on prime land, and selling it would raise much-needed funds for the military.
But until now, Banlaoi said, the government has been "very cautious about linking this with the South China Sea dispute".
Subic, about 80km northwest of Manila, was turned into a free port after the US Navy's departure in 1992. Its natural deep-water harbour can accommodate two Hamilton-class US Coast Guard cutters recently acquired by the Philippine Navy for patrolling its waters. The government also announced plans to strengthen its military outposts on islands and shoals in the South China Sea.
A confidential Philippine Defence Department document obtained by The Associated Press said the move to Subic for the Philippine Air Force will cut reaction time by fighter aircraft to contested areas in the South China Sea by more than three minutes, compared with flying from nearby Clark airfield.