Oyster Bay

The Rise of a New Subic

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Prostitution, which has gained notoriety at the height of US military presence in Subic and Clark, is likely to rise anew as the presence of American servicemen would serve as a magnet for the resurgence of girlie bars and other night spots.

MANILA – Some 600 kms southwest of Manila, workers are building a 21-km access road linking mainland Luzon to Oyster Bay in Palawan province facing the internationally disputed west Philippine sea.

Though Palawan is a major tourist destination, the project is not meant to woo more visitors, but to transform the bay into what officials described as a “mini Subic.”

Like Subic, once the site of the United States’ biggest military facility in the Far East, the scenic cove boasts a deep natural harbor, capable of hosting large vessels, including warships.

The groundwork has already cost the government some 500 million pesos and it is expected to rise as more facilities such as piers, dry-docks and ship repair yards are to be built. Construction of the new naval port, part of the military’s modernization drive, is slated to be completed by 2016 when President Aquino’s six-year term ends.

Subic: Too crowded

Aquino has launched a US$1.8-billion military modernization program and revived plans to build new air and naval bases at Subic Bay. The budget excludes the annual defense aid of the US.

Use of the cove as a port loomed as the Philippines is beefing up its external defense capability in the face of unabated tensions with China over conflicting territorial claims.

Moreover, the Philippines is also readying itself to host an expected surge in the number of American security forces to be redeployed under the US’s pivot policy.

Manila’s zeroing in on Oyster Bay as an alternative naval port has loomed as Subic has become “too crowded” as more and more American battleships drop anchors at its piers.

Officials say that since last January, the number of visiting US battleships and other types of vessel at Subic has risen from 50 to nearly 90 and more are expected to make port calls as Manila and Washington ramp up their defense ties.

Bilateral talks had been going on, both in Manila and Washington, for expanded defense cooperation in line with their 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the 2001 Visiting Forces Agreement.

Just recently the Philippines opened tenders for brand-new frigates worth 18 billion pesos (US$4439 million).

Where to park?

To be armed with missiles and torpedoes, both will reinforce the two second-hand warships the US had earlier turned over to the Philippines now patrolling the west Philippine Sea.

Presided over by the defense department, the bidding has drawn interest of 11 prospective suppliers from Italy, France, South Korea and India.The Philippines is also buying five patrol boats from France for about 90 million Euros ($116 million) and some multi-role vessels from South Korea.

They will be in addition to ten state-of-the-art patrol vessels, each weighing 1,000 tons, Japan has committed to bolster the Philippines’ maritime capability.In addition, the Philippines is keen in buying a submarine to enable its naval forces to patrol the country’s maritime territory undetected — if funds permit.

“When you have a submarine, we will be able to track those violating our maritime laws without them noticing us,” Philippine Navy spokesman Lt. Rommel Rodriguez said in a statement.

Where to park the new naval assets has become a problem as Subic‘s maritime traffic has increased over the past months.

Toxic wastes

The rise of Oyster Bay as a new naval port is also likely spark tensions with China which has laid claims to the west Philippine Sea.

Last year, U.S. and Philippine commandos staged a mock amphibious assault near Oyster Bay as part of their annual military exercises. Oyster Bay is about 160 km (100 miles) from the west Philippine Sea where Chinese naval vessels patrol.

Environmentalists, however, opposed the rise of a naval port in mangrove-fringed Oyster Bay, fearing pollution and destruction of its marine sanctuaries.

Last  year, US Navy minesweeper USS Guardian ran aground near Palawan’s Tubbataha Reef, a Unesco world heritage site, destroying 2,345.67 sq ms of 10-meter-high coral reefs.

Until today, the US has yet to pay the 60 million pesos fine imposed by the Philippine government, an amount labeled by critics as just a pittance in that the incident caused least US$342 million in damage to coral reefs.

“The impending construction of a base on Oyster Bay, which is within a marine protected area, seems to be the next crime the US is intent on pushing through with,” the Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment” says.It says the US has yet to clean up the toxic wastes and rehabilitate its former military bases Subic and Clark which were shuttered in 1992.

Constitutional ban

A leftist group also assailed the rise of a new Subic, saying it violates the Philippine Constitution banning foreign military installations in the country.In a statement, Pamalakaya says a US military base in Palawan is not only meant to check China’s aggressive expansion into the West Philippine Sea, but also to maintain the military hegemony of Washington in the region.

“We will contest this grand mockery of Philippine sovereignty in the parliament of the streets, in any appropriate court or forum, and in the court of public opinion,” it says.

Militants fear that the people of Palawan will wake up one day to find that the entire island province is transformed into a virtual US military base similar to the one in Okinawa, Japan.

Geo-political interests

Plans are also afoot to station 50 to 60 US marines in Palawan as an advance detachment at the South China Sea.The US also wants to convert the 246-hectare Philippine Marine Corps reservation in Palawan, particularly the Brooke’s Point, and nearby areas into joint US-Philippines marine operational command posts.

Part of the cooperation is the installation of high-powered radar systems in strategic areas from north to south of Palawan facing the potentially oil-rich West Philippine Sea.The new radars, meant to monitor China’s naval activities, form part of the Philippines’ plans to give American forces, ships and aircraft access to more of the country’s military camps and facilities.

Although Philippine laws prohibit permanent foreign military bases in the country, the Americans have somehow found a loophole – embed themselves in the Philippines’ own camps and facilities to skirt the ban and advance their geo-political interests in the Asia-Pacific region.