MANILA, Philippines - American troops, warships and aircraft can once again use their former naval and air facilities in Subic, Zambales and in Clark Field in Pampanga as long as they have prior clearance from the Philippine government, a senior defense official said.
“They can come here provided they have prior coordination from the government,” Defense Undersecretary for defense affairs Honorio Azcueta told reporters after his meeting with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Monday.
Coming straight from the just-concluded three-day Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Dempsey was in the country the other day for a follow-up meeting with senior defense and military officials.
Azcueta pointed out that a shift of US security focus toward the Asia-Pacific region is expected to increase with more military engagements between the two long-time allies.
Earlier, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the US is increasing the deployment of its naval presence in the region, without necessarily establishing permanent military bases in any country in the region.
Asked if US troops as well as their warships and fighter planes would be allowed access to their former naval base in Subic, Azcueta said yes.
“That’s what we want... increase in exercises and interoperability,” Azcueta said.
Aside from offering a safe haven for ships due to its secured location from cyclones, the former US naval base in Subic has an airfield that can accommodate civilian and military planes.
During the Vietnam war in the 1970s, Subic Naval Base, especially its airfield, was used by the US military as staging point of all its major air operations against the Vietcong.
However, in 1992 Subic Naval Base and the Clark Air Base in Pampanga, the two biggest US military bases outside mainland America, were shut down after the Philippine Senate rejected an extension of their presence in the country.
China wary of US AsiaPac plan
Meanwhile, China’s top newspapers expressed concern over the US plan, saying that such move might widen the rift between the two countries.
Although Panetta gave assurance that the plan was not aimed at containing China, whose fast-modernizing navy has kindled worries among its neighbors, the People’s Daily did not buy that.
“Opinion across the Asia-Pacific generally does not believe that the United States’ strategy of returning to the Asia-Pacific is not aimed at China; it’s there plain for all to see,” said a commentary in the paper, which reflects the current thinking in Beijing.
“The United States verbally denies it is containing China’s rise, but while establishing a new security array across the Asia-Pacific, it has invariably made China its target,” it said.
“This strategy is driven with contradictions and undoubtedly will magnify the complexities of Asia-Pacific security arrangements, and could even create schisms.”
The People’s Daily commentary was blunter than Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin, who responded to Panetta’s announcement by saying China hopes the United States will respect its regional interests, and by calling the Pentagon’s steps “out of keeping with the times.”
Beijing appears keen to avoid outright confrontation with the US, but the comments in state newspapers reflected persistent worries that Washington is bent on frustrating its emergence as a major power.
“After this new (US) military deployment and adjustment is completed, the intensity of US meddling in Asia-Pacific affairs will surely increase,” the Liberation Army Daily quoted a People’s Liberation Army researcher as saying.
“This trend will increase people’s fears about the United States using its military dominance to interfere in the sovereignty of the region’s countries,” said the researcher, Han Xudong, a professor at China’s National Defense University.
China is focused on ensuring stable conditions for a Communist Party leadership transition later this year that will see the appointment of a new president to succeed Hu Jintao.
Still, Beijing and Washington have repeatedly been in dispute over US arms sales to Taiwan, which China sees as an illegitimate breakaway from its control; and the South China Sea, where China confronts a mosaic of disputes over islands and seas also claimed by Southeast Asian nations.
The US has backed a multilateral approach to solving those territorial disputes, which Beijing has rejected as meddling.