South China Sea tensions have Filipino leaders hoping the US Navy returns to Subic Bay
OLONGAPO, Philippines — At the height of the Vietnam War, the vast U.S. Navy base here at Subic Bay, across the South China Sea from the fighting, was humming with activity, and for the 30,000 civilian Filipinos who worked on maintenance, repair and hundreds of other high-paid jobs, it was a golden era.
"There was so much money to be made," said Jong Cortez, a member of the city council whose parents both worked on the base. Plus, there were good benefits and, everyone thought, job security.
Even after the war ended, the Navy stayed active here to counter the naval base the Soviets occupied at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam that the Americans had left behind. But in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and in 1992, amid long-festering feelings that Philippine sovereignty was compromised by the presence of U.S. bases, the Americans were told to leave. The eruption of nearby Mount Pinatubo in June 1991 helped convince Washington that the bases weren't worth making an issue of. The civilian jobs vanished.
Three short years later, the Chinese began building "fishermen's shelters" on Mischief Reef, off the Philippine coast, and the territorial disputes over the South China Sea began to heat up.
"We thought it was a stab in the back by China, taking advantage of our loss of the security umbrella provided by the United States," Rafael Alunan, a former interior secretary, told a group of visiting journalists on Monday.
So before long, Philippine intransigence softened and American warships started making port calls here again, but they didn't do much for the local economy. To create permanent jobs, a "Freeport" was established to attract private business. Fedex was here for a while, with 1,000 employees, but its hub closed in 2010 in favor of one in China. A shipyard is the major employer now, but its wages, in real terms, don't match those the Americans once paid.
Today, as the Chinese are actively establishing outposts on the reefs and islands of the South China Sea, the Philippines, with deep ambivalence, is inviting a renewed and enlarged U.S. military presence.
Opponents have gone to the Philippine Supreme Court to challenge a new, bolstered defense agreement between Manila and Washington, stirring old nationalist feelings against the United States. But here in Olongapo, the establishment of a standing American presence couldn't be more welcome, at least among the city's political and business leaders.
"We treat them as tourists. Why would you keep tourists from coming to your country?" asked Mayor Rolen Paulino.
"We would like very much to have the Americans back. We grew up with them," said Caesar Papriyo, 71, a retired businessman.
Bong Pineda, 67, the past president of the Olongapo Chamber of Commerce, reminisced about going out to a mid-sea lagoon called Scarborough Shoal in the 1970s, where he and his friends would go skinny-dipping. That was before the U.S. Navy started using a wreck on the shoal for target practice, in the 1980s. It was also before the Chinese seized the shoal, in 2012, and set off the current crisis over territorial claims in the sea.
If only the Americans hadn't left, Pineda said, there wouldn't be this problem in the South China Sea today.
Last year, as Navy visits picked up, 22,000 American military personnel visited here, spending an estimated $4.5 million, said Ramon Agregado, an official with the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority. But then came the murder, in October, of a transgender person who witnesses say was last seen leaving a local bar with a U.S. Marine. The body of Jennifer Laude, a Philippine national, was found the next day in a bathroom of a cheap hotel across the street; Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton, 19, was charged with murder. He is in U.S. custody awaiting trial, and the case has caused an uproar among Filipinos who object to the American military's presence and privileges.
But for local officials, what happened next was a disaster. The Navy confined all its personnel to the Freeport zone, so as not to rile Philippine sensibilities any further -- but that meant a cutoff of discretionary spending.
"Olongapo is not a prostitute city," said Paulino, who owns several bars patronized by visiting sailors. "This is an entertainment city. Of course, we have beautiful people."
Willie Capulong, a public relations consultant, said he was organizing a petition to be sent to the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, demanding that liberty privileges be restored to American servicemembers.
Hopes remain high, nonetheless, that the defense agreement will be put into force and a flood of Americans will follow. They would rotate through Philippine bases, and stay longer than the current port calls and training exercises; the United States says it has no plans to establish permanent bases of its own.
"We are a vital logistics player," said a hopeful Agregado. "We are a main staging area, a jumping-off point, for any possible military action by the Philippines and the United States."
It will never again be like the old days, but Olongapo sees opportunity coming westward across the Pacific.