China will hold naval exercises in the South China Sea on Saturday despite warnings from the West against raising tensions in the region.
In a move aimed at countering China’s increasing assertiveness in the contested waters, the Philippine Navy said it has begun using Subic Bay facing the South China Sea as a naval base.
One of the Philippine Navy’s two guided-missile frigates was deployed at the new base on Tuesday, about 30 years after the US Navy withdrew from the strategic area.
The Philippine Air Force, meanwhile, plans to station aircraft at the Subic Bay International Airport in order to monitor and respond to maritime disputes, according to a Subic Bay port official. The airport used to form part of the US base.
Amid heightened tensions in the nearby waters, where Manila and Beijing are locked in a territorial dispute, there has been a renewed appreciation of the bay’s strategic importance.
Rolen Paulino, chairman of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, which oversees the port, said in an interview with the Kyodo news service that Subic Bay has become “more important” given its “strategic location.”
The rest of the Navy fleet may move into the base “within the year,” Paulino said, adding that he welcomes port calls by US and Japanese naval vessels.
The port authority head also said a US naval presence in the area would help keep a balance as the Philippine Navy is not able to match the Chinese Navy, which is becoming more powerful.
Zharrex Santos, an official in charge of operations at Subic Bay airport, said the port authority signed an agreement with the Defense Department in February to “delineate” a portion of the airport as an Air Force forward base.
The airport allows a shortened response time as it is “two minutes closer” by air to disputed areas in the South China Sea compared with Basa Air Base in Pampanga Province, northwest of Manila, he said.
China’s maritime authority said the naval exercises are set to take place in the sea less than 25 kilometers off the coast of south China’s Hainan province.
“Military exercises will be held and entry is prohibited,” the Chinese Maritime Safety administration said in a statement Thursday, warning that an area of roughly 100 square kilometers would be closed off to maritime traffic for five hours.
China routinely conducts similar drills in waters near its shores, with an exercise in another area of the sea near Hainan scheduled for next week, as well as multiple others along the country’s eastern coastline.
The latest exercises come as Beijing faces a growing chorus of warnings from the United States and Western allies over its naval ambitions, which critics say are a beachhead for a wider attempt to change the regional balance of power.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday accused Beijing of raising tensions over Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory.
“Beijing has engaged in increasingly provocative rhetoric and activity like flying PLA aircraft near Taiwan on an almost daily basis,” Blinken said in a speech, referring to the People’s Liberation Army.
He also called for efforts to counterbalance China’s “intent to reshape the international order.”
Blinken’s comments followed verbal sparring between Beijing and Washington over President Joe Biden’s promise to defend Taiwan if attacked by China, made on the president’s trip to the region earlier this week.
Meanwhile, governments including Australia and New Zealand have sounded the alarm this week over leaked documents that appeared to show a plan to build broad security cooperation between China and the Pacific Islands.
But China has said its cooperation with Pacific Island countries “does not target any country,” and rejected claims that it is pressuring small states into security agreements.
The US military forged an accord with the Philippines in 2014 to strengthen defense cooperation. The US military is permitted to build facilities within Philippine bases, making it effectively possible to station troops in the Southeast Asian country again.
Over the last couple of years, the US Navy has used Subic Bay as its landing port when it conducts joint exercises with the Philippine Navy.
In a press conference Thursday, incoming President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said that while the Philippines and the United States have had a “very strong and very advantageous” relationship for many years, he also intends to maintain communication with China over the maritime dispute.
“I do not subscribe to the old thinking of Cold War where we had the spheres of influence. I think that we just have to (have an) independent foreign policy where we are friends with everyone. That’s the only way,” he said.