THE Philippines has given top priority to building a major military base near the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, as China claims a military no-fly zone over an artificial island it is building in the region.
General Gregorio Catapang, the Philippine military chief, told journalists late on Monday that upgrading a naval station at Oyster Bay in Palawan province is the military's "first priority".
"This is the new frontier. Because of the emerging security situation, we want (Oyster Bay) developed. As soon as we have the money, we will pour in the resources," he said.
China claims large parts of the South China Sea, including the Spratlys. Also claiming parts of the potentially energy-rich sea lane are the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Tensions are growing as China builds up its military presence in the South China Sea through massive reclamation works, including harbours and airstrips.
Gen Catapang estimates it will cost about 5 billion pesos (S$149 million) to turn Oyster Bay into a major base that can be used by the US, Japanese and Vietnamese naval fleets. It will be bigger than the former US base in Subic Bay 140km north of Manila as it will play a more strategic role, he said.
Before it was closed in 1992, the 678 sq km Subic base - about the size of Singapore - was the largest military installation outside the US.
Oyster Bay, a cove of mangrove forests and limestone cliffs 760km south-west of Manila, serves as the headquarters of Naval Forces West, which guards the western half of the Philippines.
The military is building a 12km road that will connect the base to Palawan's mainland, and there are plans to add piers, drydocks, ship-repair yards and roll-on/roll-off ramps next year.
However, efforts have been stalled by funding bottlenecks and a court case that challenges a new pact to let the US help upgrade Oyster Bay for its troops' use.
The push to have a more significant US presence in the Philippines has been fuelled largely by China's reclamation works.
Since April 19 this year, Chinese warships have also been keeping Philippine surveillance planes from flying over one of these reefs - Subi - where China is said to be planning a 3km airstrip.
"Our vessels on the water and in the air are being warned. It's turning into a no-fly zone," said Major Ferdinand Atos, commander of a small contingent of Philippine soldiers on Thitu island, 24km from Subi.
Vice-Admiral Alexander Lopez, head of the Philippine military's Western Command, said yesterday that a Philippine Air Force aircraft flying over Subi on May 7 was told by radio that it was in a "China-held military area", and that it should leave.
China hit out at the Philippines again yesterday, reasserting its rights to the Spratlys, which it calls the Nansha islands.
"The Chinese side is firmly opposed to the Philippines' occupation of some of the maritime features of China's Nansha islands by force," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing, Agence France-Presse reported.