The Philippines plans to give the United States and other allies access to its military bases under an arrangement that US forces could use to counter China’s creeping presence in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
But contrary to a foreign news report on Thursday that was attributed to unnamed Philippine Navy officials, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the Philippines would not build new air and naval bases.
China had already heard the news and warned that countries with territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea which look for help from third parties will find their efforts “futile.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the strategy was a “path of confrontation” and it would be “doomed.”
The Philippines and the United States on Thursday began five days of joint naval exercises off Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a rich fishing ground within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone that China occupied after a maritime standoff that lasted more than two months last year.
Clarifying the report by the news service Reuters, Gazmin said the Philippines would allow the United States, Japan and other allies access to its existing military bases under an agreement that would be in accordance with the Constitution and the Visiting Forces Agreement.
The 1987 Constitution prohibits foreign military bases in the country.
“Let me clarify issues. No, we are not going to construct bases. We will be accepting access,” Gazmin told reporters.
The government is still preparing the access agreement, Gazmin said.
“After that (the agreement) is done, then we will be allowing it, if and when there is an agreement, access,” Gazmin said.
“Then there will be equipment coming in from the United States. Now as far as Japan is concerned, we do welcome other countries, particularly Japan since Japan is a strategic partner, in accordance with our existing protocols,” he said.
Gazmin spoke at a news conference with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, who is in the country for a two-day official visit.
Peter Galvez, spokesman for the Department of National Defense, said the plan to move Philippine Air Force and Philippine Navy units to Subic Naval Base in Zambales province from Clark Air Base in Pampanga province was a result of the government’s “economic development plan for our regions outside Metro Manila.”
The plan includes decongesting Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Metro Manila and expanding it to Clark, Galvez said.
“That will affect the current facilities,” he added.
He said the transfer of some of the Air Force’s aircraft to Subic was being studied.
Moreover, Subic has the deep-water port requirements of the Navy’s warships BRP Alcaraz and BRP Gregorio del Pilar, he said.
That Subic is near Panatag Shoal is only “coincidental,” Galvez said.
But China is suspicious about the Philippine bases plan.
Speaking at the Tsinghua World Peace Forum, Wang, without mentioning the Philippines, said countries that “try to reinforce their poorly grounded claims (in the West Philippine Sea) through the help of external forces” will find that strategy a “miscalculation not worth the effort.”
Wang’s comments came days before he is due to attend a meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Brunei, which opens Saturday.
The 10-member Asean hopes to reach a legally binding code of conduct to manage maritime disputes in the West Philippine Sea. For now, a watered-down “Declaration of Conduct” is in place.
The Philippine bases plan coincides with the US “pivot” to Asia, a strategy that will see 60 percent of America’s warships shifting to the region before the end of the decade.
It would allow the United States and other countries with which the Philippines has visiting forces agreements to station warships, planes and troops within striking distance of Panatag Shoal and parts of the Spratly archipelago within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea that China insists are parts of its territory.
The plan comes amid China’s increasing assertiveness in staking its claims in the sea, sending large flotillas of fishing boats accompanied by warships on so-called fishing expeditions to areas within the territorial waters of the Philippines and Vietnam.
Vietnam and China have fought naval battles in the Paracels, an archipelago in a part of the waterway that Hanoi calls East Sea, while the Philippines has taken its dispute with China over Panatag Shoal to the United Nations for arbitration.
The Philippine bases plan has taken on added urgency since the standoff with China at Panatag Shoal, which Chinese ships now guard, often chasing away Filipino fishermen.
The West Philippine Sea dispute will again loom large over regional diplomacy next week when US Secretary of State John Kerry joins his counterparts from Asean nations and China among other countries for the annual meeting in Brunei.
The Philippines plans to raise the issue of Chinese ships’ “encroachment” near Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the Spratly archipelago in the middle of the West Philippine Sea where Manila recently beefed up its small military presence, diplomatic sources said.
China has accused the Philippines of “illegal occupation” of the reef, which is a strategic gateway to an area believed to be rich in oil and natural gas.