Revived Alliance Brings US Forces Back to Subic Bay in The Philippines

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More than three decades after the Navy vacated this idyllic harbor north of Manila, U.S. forces are reappearing as President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. renews ties with his country’s longtime ally.

Bound by a mutual defense treaty, the two nations have grown closer in recent years amid a large-scale Chinese military build-up, threats to nearby Taiwan and aggression in the South China Sea.

The revived partnership, previously downplayed by former President Rodrigo Duterte, who sought more cordial relations with China, is bringing the U.S. back in strength for highly publicized defense arrangements and big military exercises.

Subic, once a formidable Navy installation, and nearby Clark Air Base, formerly the largest Air Force installation overseas, have changed since their old tenants vacated. Both are run by government organizations — Clark Development Corp. and Subic Bay Metropolitan Corp. — that are looking for ways to make money in the civilian sector.

At Subic, guards are posted at the port’s gates but they wave traffic through unless they spot a suspicious vehicle. Inside, American visitors may find familiar, but repurposed landmarks.

The Royal supermarket operates in what was once a commissary. A bank occupies the former base theater. What used to be a Marine Corps barracks is the Subic Bay Peninsular Hotel. Across the road, locals run laps on a former Navy running track.

Subic’s main chapel still holds services. Marines saved the building from the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo by climbing on the roof and shoveling away accumulating ash, according to Norman Tuzon, who served there as a Marine and retired in the area more than a decade ago.

In the old days, 7th Fleet ships were regular visitors, and the military population swelled when they pulled in. For young sailors and Marines, a trip outside the gate to Olongapo city was like traveling to Tijuana from San Diego, Tuzon said.

“We wouldn’t go out in town when those guys came in for liberty,” he said. “There was always a bar fight.”

The base commissary is now a Royal grocery store at the former home of Naval Air Station Cubi Point, Philippines.

‘Pro-American’

A former transportation worker at Subic Bay, Victorio Vizcocho, recalled Filipinos bringing their families to the base in the 1980s for July 4 celebrations and Christmas gifts of apples and oranges from the Navy.

“It was looked forward to by families,” he said over coffee beside the harbor on a sunny morning in April.

In 1994, Vizcocho restarted the Subic Bay News, the former base weekly newspaper, which he still operates.

During the American era, about 15,000 Filipino employees worked at Subic and another 6,000 at Clark. These days, the port employs about 2,000 people with another 100,000 working for other businesses in the area, he said.

Some of the port facilities have run down since the Americans left. Piers are in disrepair and berths need to be dredged to accommodate large ships again, Vizcocho said.

There’s still a red-light district with a variety of night clubs featuring adult entertainment just outside the port.

“We used to blame the base for social ills, but after the Americans left the social ills were still here,” Vizcocho said. Chinese, South Koreans and Filipinos have taken up where Americans left off.

“What hasn’t changed is that people here are pro-American,” he said. “They want to see more of them coming over and boost the economy.”

An American presence is about more than entertaining sailors on liberty. The Navy requires all kinds of local support, from maintenance to supplies and housing, Vizcocho said.

“A lot of people would rather have Americans here, especially the older generation,” he said. “They know how it was.”

Booming tourism

The port operates a container terminal, among other enterprises, but its biggest revenue generator is fuel imports, pumped to old Navy underground tanks or new, above-ground tanks, each capable of holding 10 million gallons.

Subic Bay International Airport, once Naval Air Station Cubi Point, is home to Relyant Global, a Tennessee-based defense contractor that provides services for visiting U.S. forces.

The increased American military activity is noticeable, said the company’s local manager, Nina Manikan-Wight.

“It used to be just Balikatan and Kamandag,” she said of annual exercises involving the U.S. Marines and Filipino troops. “But now we are hearing about four or five exercises in between.”

Tourism at Subic is booming; hotels at the port were already full during Balikatan, forcing some troops to commute from Clark.

American service members are confined to a liberty zone that encompasses the old U.S. bases, Manikan-Wight said.

Dockside at Subic, Tuzon pointed out the spot where he departed with the last contingent of Marines to leave on the amphibious assault ship USS Belleau Wood in November 1992.

Subic Bay locals are excited about the economic impact of more American troops visiting, but Tuzon said some worry that the U.S. will use the Philippines as a staging ground for a war over Taiwan.

“They don’t want to be affected by that,” he said.

Source: Stars and Stripes