Expect America To Boost Naval Presence in the Philippines
That’s the word from the secretary of the Navy, Carlos Del Toro, who says the number of Americans stationed there will not approach that of the old days.
Look for the American Navy to return soon to what once was its largest overseas base.
The secretary of the Navy, Carlos Del Toro, offered that assurance in a brief conversation with me after a lengthy speech at the National Press Club at Washington.
No, he made clear, it would not be like the old days, when thousands of American sailors and dozens of Navy vessels were stationed at Subic Bay, about 54 miles northwest of Manila on the South China Sea.
In the aftermath of a recent incident in which a Chinese vessel flashed a Philippine patrol boat with a laser beam, the American defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, has assured the Philippines of intensified American support. A Pentagon spokesman said Mr. Austin called the Philippines defense minister, Carlito Galvez Jr., to talk about increased “maritime activities,” including joint patrols.
Mr. Del Toro seemed confident the Americans would be welcome in Olongapo, the once-brawling base town where the Navy was the biggest source of jobs and income. The last American sailors had to leave in November 1992 after the Philippine congress refused to renew the lease on the American bases, including not only the Navy base at Subic Bay but also Clark Air Base, across mountains.
American destroyers returned for occasional port calls and exercises, but the previous Philippine president, Rodrigo Dutergte, stopped even that much interaction while currying favor with China’s president, Xi Jinping. Mr. Duterte believed in getting on the good side of the Chinese while they controlled the South China Sea, which they claim as their own.
That impasse is disappearing under the new president, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., elected in a landslide last May. Bongbong, as he is widely known, is the son of the late Ferdinand Marcos, whom the Americans flew to Hawaii along with his profligate widow, Imelda, and their family and cronies after the People Power Revolution that drove Marcos out of power in 1986.
Mr. Marcos Jr. was on that getaway flight from Clark Air Base but is welcoming the Americans back to their old haunts, and bases, after meeting President Biden at New York in September. In one of the paradoxes that characterizes American relations abroad, Washington has no concerns about cozying up to the Marcos family again if that’s what it takes to buttress defenses in Asia.
Mr. Del Toro, in his remarks to me, indicated the American presence would be “much smaller,” but the Americans would definitely return to Subic and several other bases on more than just port calls.
The Philippines, if it is to stop Chinese vessels from harassing Philippine fishing boats, need all the support it can get from the Americans. The question is whether Washington would be willing to risk what could turn into armed clashes with Chinese planes and ships operating from bases it has constructed on the Spratly Islands in the middle of the South China Sea.
The Americans, Mr. Del Toro said in his talk, intend to “build more interoperability and more changeability” — meaning they will remain flexible and poised to shift course depending on the Chinese response.
No doubt we can expect American warships to be operating in tandem with Philippine vessels, none of which is really capable of facing the Chinese. Right now the likeliest option is for the Americans to go on joint patrols with the Philippine coast guard.
The Americans, whenever they return to Subic Bay and other bases, will be both welcomed and rejected. Filipinos have mixed memories of the hordes of sailors who once filled the clubs and shops of Olongapo.
A vast shopping area has sprung up on the site of the former base, but the last time this reporter was there the ground was overrun with weeds and the stores were not doing well. A number of grizzled American Navy veterans are living their retirement years in and around the city, many of them married to Filipino women.
The Americans will doubtless move into separate facilities close to the docks where Navy ships once were moored. “We’ll be there,” Mr. Del Toro assured me — if not quite the same as before.