New bases planned

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine military has revived plans to build new air and naval bases at Subic Bay, a former US naval base that American forces could use to counter China's creeping presence in the disputed South China Sea, senior navy officials said.

The proposed bases in the Philippines, a close US ally, coincides with a resurgence of US warships, planes, and personnel in the region as Washington turns its attention to a newly assertive China and shifts its foreign, economic, and security policy towards Asia.

The bases would allow the Philippines to station warships and fighter jets just 124 nautical miles from Scarborough Shoal, a contentious area of the South China Sea now controlled by China after a tense standoff last year.

The Philippine navy, whose resources and battle capabilities are no match for China's growing naval might, has yet to formally present its P10-billion ($230 million) base development plan to President Benigno S. Aquino III.

But senior officials say they believe it has a strong chance of winning approval as Aquino seeks to upgrade the country's decrepit forces.

The Philippine Congress last year approved $1.8 billion for military modernization, with the bulk going to acquisition of ships, aircraft, and equipment such as radar. The military had raised the plan in the past, but is now pushing it with more urgency following a series of naval stand-offs with China.

"The chances of this plan taking off under President Aquino are high because his administration has been very supportive in terms of equipment upgrade," said a senior military officer who asked not to be identified.

"The people around him understood our needs and more importantly, what our country is facing at this time."

But Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin denied that the Philippines will construct additional military bases. Instead, he said the Philippines is planning to provide access to the visiting and incoming military assets of the United States.

Subic, a deep-water port sheltered by jungle-clad mountains 80 km (50 miles) north of Manila, has been a special economic zone since US forces were evicted in 1992, ending 94 years of American military presence in the Philippines and shutting the largest US military installation in Southeast Asia.

Since then, American warships and planes have been allowed to visit the Philippines for maintenance and refueling.

US military "rotations" through the Philippines have become more frequent as Beijing grows more assertive in the South China Sea, a vast expanse of mineral-rich waters and vital sea lanes claimed entirely by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and in part by Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines - one of Asia's biggest security flashpoints.

A 30-hectare (74-acre) area has been identified for the bases, which would station fighter jets and the Philippines' biggest warships that patrol the disputed sea, including two Hamilton-class cutter ships it acquired for free from the United States.

The plan has taken on added urgency since a tense two-month standoff last year between Chinese and Philippine ships at the Scarborough Shoal, which is only about 124 nautical miles off the Philippine coast. Chinese ships now control the shoal, often chasing away Filipino fishermen.

US and Philippine navy ships begin war games near the shoal on Thursday.

The South China Sea dispute will again loom large over regional diplomacy next week when US Secretary of State John Kerry joins his counterparts from Southeast Asian nations and China among other countries for an annual meeting in Brunei.

The Philippines plans to raise the issue of Chinese ships' "encroachment" near another disputed coral reef where Manila recently beefed up its small military presence, diplomatic sources told Reuters. China in turn has accused the Philippines of "illegal occupation" of the reef, which is a strategic gateway to an area believed to be rich in oil and natural gas.

The Philippine military also wants to revive the former Cubi Point Naval Air Station that once handled some of the largest military aircraft in the US arsenal. (With a report from Aaron B. Recuenco)

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