US Navy mulls return to Subic Bay for new naval base in South China Sea

Real estate in Philippines up for grabs after owner declares bankruptcy, Chinese firms also eyeing property

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Photo of Subic Bay in 1990, with US Naval base (R) and air station (L)

Photo of Subic Bay in 1990, with US Naval base (R) and air station (L) (Wikimedia Commons photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – The U.S. Navy is considering a new lease on a port facility in the Philippines, which it previously occupied, as a repair and maintenance facility for its fleet in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Subic Bay Hanjin Shipyard was placed on the market earlier this year after the owner, Hanjin Philippines, declared bankruptcy. The news immediately sparked the interest of two Chinese firms, which are already eyeing the property.

According to Stars and Stripes, the U.S. government is now considering acquiring the shipyard to preclude the possibility that the base might fall into Chinese hands.

Subic Bay was previously a naval base for U.S. forces after it was captured from the Spanish in 1899 during the Philippine-American War. It served as a major base for naval operations in the region until 1992, when it was returned to the Philippines.

However, with the bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping, who owe South Korean creditors over US$900 million, the facility is up for sale. Given the geography and increasing strategic importance of naval facilities in the South China Sea region, Subic Bay is prime real estate.

“The U.S. Navy is exploring the viability of Subic Bay Hanjin Shipyard for use as a potential repair and maintenance facility…. No final decisions have been made,” Commander Nate Christensen, a Navy public affairs officer, confirmed to Stars and Stripes.

In recent years, the U.S. government has been warning nations about predatory and potentially threatening strategies of the Chinese government to acquire key infrastructure via state-backed corporations, as can be witnessed in Malaysia, Kenya, Zambia, and as rumor has it, El Salvador.

In the case of Subic Bay and escalating tensions in the region, the U.S. Navy’s possible return to the area offers a dual incentive.

First, it will keep China from obtaining another foothold to project naval power throughout the region, and it would also offer the U.S. Navy an exceptionally convenient logistics base in the South China Sea, meaning large vessels would no longer need to return to Pearl Harbor for maintenance operations.

Retired Navy Captain Brian Buzzell is also quoted in the Stars and Stripes report, calling the potential move a “golden chance to return to Subic Bay.”

“The confluence of all these factors gives the U.S. Navy a perfect opportunity to return to Subic Bay, except this time as an equal partner respecting the laws and sovereignty of the Philippines and benefiting the Filipino people and economy. It also would send a strong message to Beijing that, despite its efforts, the alliance between the United States and the Philippines is strong and unbreakable.”

Recently, there has been growing dissatisfaction among Filipinos with the Duterte administration’s handling of maritime territorial disputes with China.

Provided the U.S. is willing to assist the Philippines to enhance its own naval capabilities, which have been steadily improving, many in the Philippines would likely welcome the U.S. Navy’s return to Subic Bay.