Manila to upgrade strategic naval base

Oyster Bay seen as key plank in new security pact to be inked with US

THE Philippines is beefing up its perimeters in anticipation of a security agreement next month with Washington that seeks to contain Chinese assertiveness in the volatile South China Sea.

The focus of this current build-up is Palawan, an island province 600km south-west of the capital Manila that United States Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg has described as "very important" because half of its 2,000km coastline faces the South China Sea.

The Philippine Navy is dusting off a decades-old plan to upgrade its base in Oyster Bay, a postcard-perfect cove of mangrove forests and limestone cliffs, nestled within Ulugan Bay in central Palawan.

Mr Patrick Cronin, an Asia-Pacific security expert at the Washington-based think-tank Centre for a New American Security, said Oyster Bay "may be the best choice" for a strategic area where the US could station troops, ships and naval aircraft within easy reach of territories claimed by Beijing.

Oyster Bay opens directly to the South China Sea and is closer than the current Subic facility used by US naval vessels to the Spratly Islands, which are just 160km away.

The islands are claimed by several countries, including China and the Philippines.

Analysts see Oyster Bay and Subic as key planks in a new agreement being hammered out in Washington that will allow the US to "rotate" more troops for a longer period of time within Philippine shores.

This push towards new defence ties between the Philippines and the US has been fuelled largely by China's increasingly aggressive posture in pressing its claims over nearly all of the South China Sea.

Last month, Manila lodged a protest after a Chinese Coast Guard ship used water cannon on two Filipino fishing boats that ventured near Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop in the South China Sea that was the site of a tense stand-off between the Philippines and China in 2012.

The Oyster Bay base serves as the headquarters of Naval Forces West, which guards the western half of the country.

It currently has rudimentary facilities - water systems, refuelling and sewage treatment facilities, firefighting equipment and a helipad - that are already beginning to fall apart.

Manila has earmarked 500 million pesos (S$14 million) to fund initial groundwork for the base's upgrading, including a 12km access road to Palawan's main island.

Plans are afoot to add piers, dry docks, ship-repair yards and roll-on/roll-off ramps by 2016, so that Oyster Bay, with its naturally deep harbour, can accommodate larger warships like the Philippines' two flagship frigates.

"The objective is to make it a facility that can really support our

existing large vessels and also the upcoming vessels," the Navy's spokesman, Lieutenant-Commander Gregory Fabic, told The Straits Times.

President Benigno Aquino is set to visit Oyster Bay on May 20 to launch the upgrade.

When it is fully upgraded, Oyster Bay will become a "mini-Subic", said Commodore Joseph Rostum Pena, commander of the Philippines' western navy.

Subic, a harbour in the main island of Luzon, housed the largest US military installation in South-east Asia before it was shuttered in 1992.

It is still being used by US ships, mainly to refuel and resupply and to give their crew downtime whenever they make port calls.

Manila's development of Oyster Bay is also being driven in part by rising traffic at Subic, particularly as more American battleships drop anchor at its piers.

According to the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, 72 US warships and submarines visited Subic between January and June last year.

That figure compares with 88 US naval vessel visits in 2012, 54 in 2011 and 51 in 2010.

Lt-Cmdr Fabic said that while Oyster Bay would be used mainly by the Philippine Navy, it would also be servicing Philippine allies.

"As long as they have diplomatic clearances and scheduled port visits, our allied countries can of course be accommodated.

"(Oyster Bay) can serve as an additional facility where they can rest their crew and for replenishment," he said.

In addition to fortifying its borders, the Philippines has poured money into modernising its navy.

Manila has opened tenders for new frigates worth 18 billion pesos to reinforce the two cutters now patrolling the South China Sea.

It is also negotiating for five patrol boats from France and multi-role naval vessels from South Korea, and is known to be in the market for a submarine.

rdancel@sph.com.sg