Manabu Sasaki, Asahi Shimbun
20 July 2015
HANOI, Vietnam – The Philippines and Vietnam are refurbishing key military bases used during the Cold War and bolstering cooperation with Washington to counter Beijing’s maritime expansion in the South China Sea.
Located 100 kilometers northwest of Manila, Subic Bay offers immediate access to the South China Sea. It used to host a sprawling U.S. naval base, one of the largest in Asia. The U.S. Navy abandoned the facility in 1992 following the end of the Cold War, and the area is now designated as a special economic zone for commercial use.
According to Reuters news agency, the Philippine military recently signed an agreement with the zone's operator to use some of the facilities around the bay under a renewable 15-year lease.
Referring to the move, presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma said enhancing defense capacity is a national priority for the Philippines and that the lease contract represents one aspect of such efforts.
Reuters said the Philippine military plans to station 10 or so fighter jets and two frigates at Subic Bay to defend waters in the South China Sea against incursions by Beijing.
Scarborough Shoal, 250 km west of Subic Bay, was effectively administered by the Philippines until Manila and Beijing engaged in a dangerous naval standoff there in 2012. Chinese vessels have since maintained a steady presence in the area.
An official with the Philippine military said Manila needed a military base with better access that could also be used by the United States to respond to China’s activities off Scarborough Shoal.
The Philippines is now working to strengthen its security ties with Washington. It signed a military treaty with the United States last year to pave the way for Washington to station troops in the Southeast Asian country once again.
Vietnam is also in conflict with China over sovereignty of the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.
In late June, a Russian-built submarine, Khanh Hoa, arrived in Cam Ranh Bay, which was used by the U.S. military to support South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The bay fell under communist control after the war ended in 1975.
The Soviet Union, and later Russia, deployed troops at Cam Ranh Bay between 1979 and 2002. Hanoi is now remodeling and expanding the facilities for use as a submarine base. Khanh Hoa is the fourth of six subs that Russia is to build for Vietnam.
A U.S. diplomatic official said Cam Ranh Bay is an ideal location for Washington to monitor Beijing, as it is a deep water port that can accommodate large vessels such as aircraft carriers. It is also just 460 km from the Spratlys, where China is forging ahead with reclamation work to create artificial islands there.
Hanoi and Washington are currently moving to bolster their bilateral security cooperation. The United States is seeking to make full use of Cam Ranh Bay as a supply base.
To counter the U.S. “rebalance to Asia” policy, Russia is now said to be using the bay to refuel its fighter jets, leading to heightened tension among Washington, Moscow and Beijing in the South China Sea.