Philippines to open base near disputed sea, hopes US forces can join, officials say

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The Philippines will go ahead with a plan to open military camps at Subic Bay facing the disputed South China Sea even if a proposed American military presence doesn't happen, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Friday.

Gazmin unveiled plans two years ago to open air force and navy camps at the Subic Bay Freeport so fighter jets and frigates can respond faster to any contingency in the disputed waters. The shift to Subic was decided as territorial tensions grew among China, the Philippines and four other governments.

The Philippines signed an accord last year allowing American forces to be temporarily stationed in camps including Subic, but left-wing groups have questioned the pact's constitutionality before the Supreme Court.

Gazmin said the government will soon begin constructing the bases even if the court eventually decides against allowing American access.

"That's a very strategic location because it's facing the West Philippine Sea," Gazmin said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.

Subic Bay, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Manila, used to host Washington's largest naval base outside the American mainland until it was closed in 1992, ending nearly a century of U.S. military presence. Three years later, China seized a strategic reef also claimed by Manila, prompting Philippine senators to ratify a pact that allowed American forces to return for annual combat drills.

The Philippines has scrambled to modernize its military, one of Asia's weakest, during the territorial squabbles. It has bought 12 new South Korean fighter jets, with the first two to be delivered later this year and stationed at Subic, Gazmin said.

Subic administrator Roberto Garcia said the Philippine air force will construct a camp for about 200 personnel at the freeport's airport complex, which would remain open to commercial planes. The Philippine navy will be authorized to use at least two of 15 piers and wharves which will also remain open to civilian use, he said. A naval compound will also be constructed.

"Our agreement is that military operations will only have priority in cases of national emergency," Garcia said.

A deal with the defense department allows the military to use the land for free but ownership of newly constructed buildings and improved infrastructures would shift to the freeport administration after a 15-year agreement, which could be renewed. If American forces are allowed access to the Philippine camps, Garcia said the freeport could allot a larger military area.

Businesses, including hotels and restaurants, would likely back the return of a military presence at Subic after more than two decades because of the extra security umbrella and trade. But most importantly, the military's proximity to the South China Sea will be crucial to territorial defense, Garcia said, citing how Filipinos have been shooed away from a Chinese-guarded shoal where they have fished for decades.

"It's a threat, that's why the Americans have to have a very active presence here," Garcia said. "Our people are being hit with water cannon and they couldn't fish and earn a living."

A confidential defense department document obtained by The Associated Press says yhe cost of repairs and improvements for an air force base in Subic would be less than half of the cost of constructing a new air force base because the vast Subic complex already has a world-class runway and aviation facilities.

Many fear the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which also involve Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan, could set off a serious conflict that could threaten Asia's economies.