On Thursday, Kyodo News reported that 30 years to the day of the US closing her largest overseas military base in Subic Bay, Philippines, the Pentagon would be reestablishing a foothold there.
Subic Bay is on the west coast of the Philippine island of Luzon on the South China Sea and could be the front line for any future conflict with China in the region.
The Philippines is one of the US’ largest non-NATO military allies, and under the framework of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), Manila and Washington are in talks to construct 5 additional military installations, and organize a pre-positioning of weapons on the island.
By 1990, the former-Subic Bay Naval Base had grown to be 262 square miles, the same size as Singapore, and was the largest overseas base on Earth. On any given day, 30 combat and military supply vessels might be found there.
Since its closing 30 years ago, Subic Bay has become a bustling free port of 150,000 people, all of which operate in the geopolitical spider’s web of the South China Sea.
The decision follows an incident where a Chinese Coast Guard rigid hull inflatable boat approached a Philippine naval ship that was towing debris back to the island of Thiton, a contested island currently held by the Philippines. The Chinese ship tried twice to block the latter’s passage before cutting the tow rope and making off with the object.
Chinese officials stated instead that the debris, which reports said appeared to be Chinese rocket parts, was negotiated amicably between the vessels.
These sorts of flashpoints highlight the extreme sensitivity of the region, why the US might want to expand their presence there under the military treaty they have with the Philippines, and why the current escalatory policies of the Biden Administrations, building on those established under former-President Trump, are so dangerous.
There’s nothing US officials love more than reiterating the commitments they’ve made to defend other nations if attacked. Last week Vice President Kamala Harris was sent to the Philippines to work out an expansion of US military presence under the EDCA.
While meeting with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Harris reaffirmed that any attacks on Philippine vessels in the South China Sea would trigger a US response under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, saying “this is an unwavering commitment we have to the Philippines”.
Last Tuesday, she visited the island of Palawan—controlled by the Philippines but claimed territorially by Beijing, to deliver a speech aboard a Philippine Coast Guard vessel. Dave DeCamp writing for Antiwar said the visit is unusual and is “clearly meant as a message to Beijing as Harris will be the highest-level US official to ever visit Palawan”.
DeCamp continues, saying that the work to bolster the EDCA “is part of the US effort to expand its presence in the region to counter China, as outlined by the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy”.
In Indonesia, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with his counterpart to push for stronger military ties, and was able to secure agreements “to expand bilateral military training and education, including through hosting new language training courses, expanding cooperation for emerging defense leaders, and enhancing combined exercises,” writes DeCamp.
If these come to pass under a Biden Administration, the Pentagon will have brought 3 of the 6 major territorial powers in the South China Sea under its sway, leaving just Vietnam and China, who maintain close ties, and Malaysia outside their scope of influence.
As was highlighted this month by the errant missile strike in Poland, the risk for escalation between nuclear powers—not by an act of Presidential decree or Congressional authority—but by accidents, false flags, misunderstandings, and technological malfunctions, is greatly increased in situations with the kind of military build-up taking place now on Taiwan and around the South China Sea.
Many US officials were quick to call for temperance when what was likely a Ukrainian interceptor missile went off course and struck a farm in Poland and prompted accusations it was a Russian missile. Whether the same attitude would be present if a missile struck a Philippino Coast Guard ship, or Taiwanese ship remains to be seen.