SUBIC BAY - Aside from helping the Philippine military improve its capabilities, especially in defending the country's territory, the increased presence of US forces in the Philippines under the two countries' newly signed defense agreement is also seen to pump the local economy.
But social activists also fear for the revival of widespread prostitution, at least in this former US naval base, which is likely one of the facilities that US troops will have access to when Manila and Washington start implementing their Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
The agreement, which authorities say is a contract to implement their 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, was signed last April 28 amid the Philippines' and United States' shared concern over China's aggressive assertion of its claims in the South China Sea. Defense ties between Manila and Washington are anchored on their 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
By granting the US military wider access to Philippine military facilities and allowing it to preposition defense equipment, supplies and materiel, the new agreement, which is good initially for 10 years, aims not only to enhance the two militaries' capabilities but also to facilitate humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, especially for the Philippines, which is frequently hit by calamities.
While authorities have yet to identify the facilities where the US military can be temporarily stationed under the agreement, Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority chairman Roberto Garcia acknowledges the possibility of Subic Bay being one of those since the Philippine Air Force and Philippine Navy are already expected to utilize portions of this strategic area this year at the earliest.
Subic Bay, located in Zambales province north of Manila, was home to what used to be the largest overseas naval facility of the US military until 1992 after the Philippine Senate refused to renew the 1947 US-Philippines Military Bases Agreement. A year earlier, the US Air Force also left its base in nearby Pampanga province for the same reason and due to the explosion of Mt. Pinatubo volcano.
The two bases have since been converted into economic hubs, granting special privileges to investors and locators, and generating jobs for around 170,000 people.
"This was their (U.S. military) home for many, many years. So they're very comfortable here in Subic. And Subic has the benefit of the maritime, so they can bring their heavy equipment here," Garcia said in an interview last Monday.
"Subic Bay Freeport is the only free port that has a port facility and an international airport. That's a very rare combination," he noted, adding it is also close to the disputed areas in the South China Sea, such as Scarborough Shoal, long a favorite fishing ground of Filipino fishermen but one which China has effectively controlled since 2012.
According to Garcia, the SBMA is set to sign an agreement later this year with the Philippine military for use of a portion of the unutilized airport in Subic by the air force, and three ports by the navy.
Garcia said that for 15 years and without any charge, the air force intends to use 15 out of the airport's 200 hectares to station fighter jets that will be acquired from South Korea, while the navy wants to homeport in Subic the two Hamilton-class cutters that it got from the United States.
"We're just accommodating the Philippine Air Force and Philippine Navy because of national security concerns. So they'll operate side by side with the present businesses," Garcia said, disclosing that the free port currently has 1,800 companies, with total investments of around $9 billion, a 90,000-strong workforce, and exports worth around $1 billion a year.
Asked if he thinks Subic will become a military base again, he said, "No, only certain facilities of Subic Bay Freeport will be used for military purposes."
And when these facilities are already in place, he said, joint use of these with the US military under the new defense agreement may then happen.
Still, Garcia believes that more frequent visits of more US troops and vessels in Subic may already be observed ahead of the installation of the Philippine military facilities because of the new agreement.
The SBMA has recorded 73 arrivals of US military vessels in 2013, compared with 51 in 2010, 55 in 2011 and 87 in 2012. From January to March this year, there were 33 visits.
These figures are significantly higher than 15 in 2004 and 18 in 2005.
"I think everybody agrees that the presence of the Americans here will improve the national security posture of the Philippines. But the side effect, of course, is it will be an addition to the economy, especially to the local businessmen who supply the ships with water and other services. And when the servicemen come on shore, they go to the restaurants, hotels or shopping malls," Garcia said.
Rose Baldeo, president of the Subic Bay Freeport Chamber of Commerce which groups most of the companies inside the economic zone, told Kyodo News that maritime and tourist-oriented businesses like hotels and restaurants are indeed expected to enjoy economic benefits from an increased US military presence.
Rolen Paulino, mayor of Olongapo City which is immediately outside the free port zone, also welcomes the development, especially because tourism contributes to about 50 percent of the local economy.
"If these Americans come here, automatically, we look at them as tourists," he said.
But Fr. Shay Cullen, a missionary priest who founded the People's Recovery, Empowerment and Development Assistance Foundation that campaigns against sexual exploitation and installation of US military bases in the Philippines, expresses worry about the expansion of the already existing sex trade in Subic, Olongapo and the immediate surroundings with the presence of more U.S. troops.
"We expect the U.S. military to have their highest moral standards on display," Cullen said.
"My concern is for our government to have a separate and strong provision on the abuse of the hospitality of our people. We don't want the U.S. military to abuse it," echoed Baldeo.
Paulino said US troops who violate local laws during their visit should be placed under the custody of Philippine authorities, and not those of the United States, an issue that was contested when a visiting U.S. Marine was convicted of raping a Filipino woman inside Subic in 2005.
Cullen and Baldeo are also wary of possible impacts on the environment, particularly on the discharge of toxic wastes and chemicals by U.S. vessels in the bay, with the latter asking local authorities to be always on their toes and strictly implement environmental laws.
"We already had a glimpse of the past. It's like watching an old movie," Donna May Tamayo, executive director of the Subic Bay Freeport Chamber of Commerce, said of the possible social impacts.