Subic Bay May Be Up for Rent
Thomas Fuller International Herald Tribune
Friday, July 13, 2001
MANILA Strapped for cash and battling three insurgencies at once, the Philippines is considering transforming the deepwater port at Subic Bay into a naval base for hire and inviting foreign militaries, including that of the United States, to dock, service and repair warships there for a fee.
The administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is considering the move as a way to help pay for its urgently needed military modernization program, according to Angelo Reyes, the defense secretary.
"We have assets - real estate - that have no immediate utilization," Mr. Reyes said. "To enable us to modernize more rapidly, we have to be creative in looking for sources of financing." The proposal would bridge the intersecting worlds of commerce and military maintenance and perhaps serve, one Filipino official said, as part of a 21st-century solution to the problem of dealing with the resentment and controversies that surround U.S. bases in Asia.
"If we can operate Subic as a commercial facility that could be used by vessels of other countries, that would be ideal," Mr. Reyes said. "This would be commercial because it's in our constitution that we cannot have bases here." The proposal is being made more than a decade after the Philippine Senate voted not to renew Washington's lease on U.S. facilities at Subic and nearby Clark Air Base. The United States closed the bases, once key parts of its Pacific organization, in 1991 and 1992.
In describing the Subic proposal, Mr. Reyes chose his words carefully. The plan to provide services for warships, he said, "is being floated around, and I have expressed support." Mr. Reyes also said the Philippine government would "accept anybody who will be willing to pay for the service or pay for the facility."
"We are not going to discriminate among nations," he said.
Given the U.S. fleet's domination of Asian waters, however, it seems likely that the United States would be the main client, if the price is right.
Any formal announcement by the government on the matter is likely to be greeted by protests from Philippine nationalists who oppose a foreign military presence on Philippine soil.
But sources close to Mrs. Arroyo said she was quietly expressing hope for closer military cooperation from the United States and favored renting out the Subic facilities. Speaking at a government function Wednesday, Mrs. Arroyo called for closer ties with the United States on all fronts.
Military analysts say the desire for closer U.S. ties is partly driven ! by the need to check China's power in the South China Sea, where the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries have territorial claims that overlap those of Beijing. Competing for such services is Singapore, which also has a facility that can handle the largest American ships.
The central location and topography of Subic make it perhaps the most strategic deepwater port in Southeast Asia.
Sheltered from typhoons by a ring of mountains, the bay has the rare feature of berths in nearly 30 meters (90 feet) of water.
It is also one of the world's few deepwater ports where large aircraft can land and taxi to the docks, facilitating the provisioning of a navy's largest ships.
U.S. officials declined to! comment directly on the proposal but said they were aware of it.
"The U.S. supports efforts by the Philippines to modernize its armed forces and make efficient use of the extensive facilities at Clark and Subic," one U.S. official said.
Copyright © 2001 The International Herald Tribune