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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

The United States rebalance towards Asia means it is likely to return to its old military bases in the Philipines.
Filipino activists stage a protest rally against the up-coming visit of US President Barack Obama in Manila on April 25. Dennis M Sabangan
Filipino activists stage a protest rally against the up-coming visit of US President Barack Obama in Manila on April 25. Dennis M Sabangan

OLONGAPO // When Jack Walker returned to the Subic Bay military base 39 years after he was stationed there during the Vietnam war, he found his old home falling apart.

The air strip that used to handle some of the largest military aircraft in the US airforce sits largely unused; a recent landslide had torn a few bunkers in half.

The base is a relic to the long-standing but rocky relationship between the United States and the Philippines, one that has survived colonial rule, regional wars, dictatorship, and growing Chinese power .

Under a new defence agreement expected to be signed on Monday, active duty US troops could return to Subic Bay for the first time in more than a decade.

“The agreement will enable some flexibility on the part of the US when it sends its military for either joint exercises with their Philippine counterparts or in assisting the latter in tracking down [Islamist militants],” said Patricio Abinales, who teaches Philippines studies at the Asian Studies Programme in the School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii and was born in the Philippines.

The US can also help the Philippines armed forces reorient themselves from a focus on counterinsurgency “to one which has external defence capabilites,” Mr Abinales said.

US-Philippines Ties

Mr Walker and his fellow marines landed at the 678-square-kilometre Subic Bay base, one of America’s largest outside the country at the time, in 1972.

Its strategic position meant it played a role in every major US military engagement in the Asia Pacific area between 1898 and 1991.

The US had two major bases in the Philippines, Subic Bay and Clark along with several smaller installations. Growing anger at the United States’s long presence in the country caused the Philippines senate to refuse to renew the lease for the two military bases and the US military pulled out in 1991.

Once the US forces left, both Subic Bay and Clark were turned into special economic zones. In Subic Bay, the US Navy left behind more than 1,800 houses in neighborhoods designed to resemble American suburbs.

This slice of American life in the tropics attracted a slew of former military men who, having spent time there when the bases were open, moved back to retire, including Mr Walker.

The base, and Olongapo, the nearest town, was not what he remembered.

“Back in the 70s Olongapo was a nice-looking place, but when I came back it was dirty, rundown, all the buildings were in disrepair, there were millions of telephone wires hanging all over the place. It was a ghetto,” said Mr Walker.

Despite the rundown atmosphere, there have been some improvements. “The roads are better. Before it took three to four hours to get to Manila. Now [there’s] a major highway,” Mr Walker said.

He thought the new defence agreement would help improve the local economy.

“The Subic International Airport has one civilian carrier that operates out of it. The plan is that three Philippine air force units will come in and take over the airport. They will have guest forces that will come from the US who will be here on a transitional basis of around four months at a time. Ships will be making a lot more stops and there will be about 200 or so US personnel here, mostly administrative jobs,” said Mr Walker, adding that he thought this would also create a lot of jobs for locals.

Uneasy relationship

In the days running up to Mr Obama’s visit on Monday, a number of protests have been staged outside the presidential palace in Manila to oppose the return of the US military to the country.

At the same time, a 2013 study by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, showed that the Philippines scored 85 per cent when people were asked: “Do you have a favorable view of the US?”

This contrast marks the complex relationship the Philippines has with the US, which dates back to the late 19th century when the US kicked out colonial Spain after the Spanish-American War without granting the country its freedom.

“Filipinos expected independence following the defeat of the Spanish so they of course turned to fight the Americans once they realised they were merely trading colonial masters,” said Andrew Yeo, assistant professor at the Department of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.

The turning point came during World War II, when Americans and Filipinos fought side-by-side against the Japanese, who attacked the Philippines immediately after Pearl Harbour, leading to the country’s independence in 1946.

US-Philippine relations remained very close throughout the Cold War, though frustrations mounted in the 1980s over the US acceptance of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorhip. The rise of nationalist politicians who had suffered under Marcos and came to power following the People Power revolution in 1986 led to a diminishing of US influence in the country.

“However, the reality of threats in the South China Sea following a dispute with China in 1995,” Mr Yeo said, “and the focus on terrorism and radical Islam after September 11 helped greatly improve relations between the US and Philippines.”

Whether the new defence agreement will boost relations further is yet to be seen, but the fast decaying base at Subic is looking forward to a fresh lick of paint and a stab at its former glory.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae