American flags fly fore and aft on the US missile cruiser Shiloh as it docks at a pier across a narrow waterway from decrepit, decaying buildings of an abandoned US naval base at Subic Bay. The dock was once a bulwark of American power in the South China Sea after US forces seized the base from the Spanish in 1899.
At the end of a long walkway from the pier to shore, eager shopkeepers again sell souvenirs and taxi drivers lie in wait for sailors primed for a night of carousing in the bars of Olongapo, the base town in the Philippines. Now, nearly a quarter of a century after the US Navy had to give up its Subic Bay base and the Clark Air Base across the Zambales mountains to the east, Americans are once again ready to defend the Philippines, and the region.
The Philippines Senate, which had voted in 1991 against renewing the lease on US bases, has dropped its objection to the American return to waters threatened by China’s new insistence on its right to rule almost all the South China Sea – including the Spratly Islands claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
The increasingly acrimonious relations between Beijing and Washington over the vast area of ocean indicate a rising role for the US – in defence of not only the Philippines’ stake in the waters but also of Vietnam, where 40 years ago the US was ousted in a war for which Subic Bay provided strategic support. On Monday, fresh from proclaiming the right of US ships and planes to move unmolested in waters and airspace claimed by China, the US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter was in Hanoi, listening to a Vietnamese band play “The Star Spangled Banner” and declaring: “We’re both committed to deepening our defence relationship.”
That rhetorical flourish came as a rebuff to China’s second-highest military officer, Admiral Sun Jiunguo, deputy chief of the People’s Liberation Army’s general staff. The previous day, he told regional defence ministers in Singapore that a controversial drive to reclaim land from the shallow waters around Chinese-held islands in the Spratlys was “justified, legitimate and reasonable” and “well within the scope of China’s sovereignty”.
The US and other nations say that China aims to build airstrips and station aircraft on the islands, vastly increasing Beijing’s military reach.
Full article: US preparing to face down China in the South China Sea – while locals expect ‘bonanza of riches’ from return of American sailors (The Independent)