WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials are increasingly concerned about a bid by China to take over parts of Subic Bay in the northern Philippines, a move that would give Beijing more control over the contested South China Sea.
Chinese investors are in the forefront of efforts to buy the major shipyard in Subic Bay. That would permit Chinese vessels and other apparatus to have a top-of-the-line port to patrol southern extremes and tighten their grip on passageways into the South China Sea.
The shipyard is now owned by a South Korea firm that is in default on its payments for the facility. China has regularly used its economic leverage to secure ports and other key infrastructure in other nations, such as in Sri Lanka in 2015.
“The value of Subic as a military base was proven by the Americans. Chinese defense planners know that,” Rommel Banlaoi, a Philippine security expert, told The Guardian newspaper.
Subic Bay was the largest U.S. Navy facility in the region until 1992, when the lease with the Philippines ended. It remains a port of call for Navy ships.
Retired Rear Admiral Sam Cox, a former commander of the Office of Naval Intelligence, said the geographic value of Subic Bay cannot be matched.
“There is nothing exactly like it,” Cox, now director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, told TMN in an interview. Not only is the port’s size and shelter almost perfect for ships, but Cox said the water in the port permits seaplanes.
Cox said Subic’s value was demonstrated during the Vietnam war. Then, aircraft and ships could easily engage in operations and then quickly return to base any time, while giving the military a firm grip on the waters.
“It was invaluable for conducting operations during the Vietnam war,” Cox said.
Now, with China expanding its grip on islands and outcroppings in the South China Sea and militarizing them, keeping open the southern approach to the South China Sea is vital, Pentagon officials said in background interviews.
Subic Bay is roughly 145 miles from the Scarborough Shoal, one of the islands China has seized, and the Spratly Islands, both of which Beijing is militarizing, Pentagon officials said. That part of the South China Sea is claimed by the Philippines as well as Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.