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Geopolitics

Rechartered Waters: Will U.S. Military Land Back In Philippines?

It's been 20 years since the U.S. had troops in the Philippines. With new plans in the works for a Filippino-U.S. base-sharing, much has changed - both locally and geopolitically.

Joint military exercises in the South China Sea
Joint military exercises in the South China Sea
Jason Strother

MACARASCAS — Down on the docks in the small fishing village of Macarascas, on Palawan Island's west coast, locals are taking their boats out to sea. It's a sunny, clear day, the perfect conditions to bring back a catch of mackerel or octopus, the fishermen hope.

"Our population as of now is almost 1,700, and our main source of income is farming and fishing," says Jane Villarin, the 37-year old leader of the local community council.

The fishermen in her village share the waterways with the Filipino Navy. Just across the bay is the Ulugan Bay navy base, home to a small fleet of patrol boats and military personnel.

About 160 kilometers west of here are the Spratly Islands, an archipelago of hundreds of rocks, reefs and islets. Several countries in the region lay claim to this area, principally the Philippines and China. It's an area rich in marine life and thought to have vast untapped natural resources. About 50% of the world's maritime traffic sails through these waters.

Over the past few years, navies from both countries have been confronting each other at sea. Villarin says it's a bit scary to live in what has become a front row seat of this regional flashpoint. That's why they're pleased to have the navy nearby.

"It's protection for us," Villarin says. "That's why the Philippines Navy is welcomed here, because of that."

And she adds, she'd welcome American naval resources here too. "Today I'm pleased that we are beginning an important new chapter in the relationship between our two countries, and it starts with our security."

Coming back after two decades

In April, U.S. President Barack Obama and Philippines President Benigno Aquino signed a new defense pact, the Enhancement of Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which opens the door for American forces to be stationed here, 22 years after the U.S. closed its bases.

But as Obama explained, it's more of a base-sharing arrangement than a re-establishment of American power in the region.

"The United States is not trying to reclaim old bases or build new bases," he said. "At the invitation of the Philippines, American forces will rotate through Filipino bases."

A Macarascas fisherman takes me out on his boat as close as we can get to the Ulugan Bay base. Inside here is another, deeper port called Oyster Bay. This is the facility the Philippine government has offered the U.S. Navy to use.

"The very purpose of that base is to enhance our defense capabilities westward to the West Philippines Sea," says Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, public affairs chief for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. "Oyster Bay is one of those that we want to offer to the United States so we can develop it."

He says it's still too early to determine how big or what might be included in the proposed base-sharing agreement.

Villarin sees an opportunity for her village too. Most people in Macarascas earn just over $100 a month, so inviting the United States here will bring more jobs to the barangay, as the community is called in the local language.

The majority of people here in bustling Puerto Princesa feel the same way. They see the expansion of the Oyster Bay base as a potential boost for the economy.

Naysayers cite U.S. track record

But not everyone here is happy about having a modern American fleet with bigger ships and soldiers in their backyard. Environmentalists point out that much of Palawan Island is a protected conservation zone, including the mangrove forest around the navy base.

A fisherman in Oyster Bay — Photo: Jason Strother

Elizabeth Maclang, superintendent of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, says Puerto Princesa, to which Oyster Bay and the Macarascas village belong, opposes the military's plan to develop the base and allow Americans to use it on environmental grounds. Maclang says local communities don't realize what's at stake — like chopping down the mangroves to build a new port and other installations.

"Even if there's a lot of jobs, there are a lot of facilities that will be put up there," Maclang says. "But if you cut the mangroves, it will greatly affect their livelihood. Because the Macarascas and Baheeli are among the potential ecotourism sites as well, and that would add some extra livelihood also for them."

Maclang explains that the U.S. doesn't have a good environmental track record in the Philippines as it is. In 1992, American forces left the country after almost a century of deployment here. But the bases that were handed back over were left heavily polluted, and last year a U.S. Navy ship crashed into one of Palawan's coral reef preserves.

Environmental advocates say the U.S. pretty much got off with just a slap on the wrist from the national government.

The stationing of American forces on Palawan could also bring some other unwanted impact to the community. There's a strip of bars in Puerto Princesa that caters to male patrons. About 20 girls work in one particular establishment, all having come from outside Palawan, the manager says.

Off-duty American soldiers, she says, are some of her best customers, and she'd be happy to have more. "Especially the past few years," she says. "There are many American customers here. I think they are not here for work. They are here for rest and relaxation."

The prospect of expanding the Oyster Bay base and stationing Americans there alarms Jean Enriquez, director of the Manila-based Coalition Against Trafficking in the Asia Pacific.

"The presence of naval soldiers in that area would also mean the existence of a demand site to trafficking and also prostitution, and that could be a magnet for the trafficking of women and children from the outskirts of Oyster Bay, probably from Puerto Princesa and other indigenous communities from around Palawan who are very poor," she says.

Enriquez points out that in the areas where American bases used to be, prostitution and human trafficking are still serious problems.

She and other advocates have taken their concerns to the streets. protesting the redeployment of U.S. soldiers to the Philippines.

These demonstrators greeted President Obama during his trip to Manila earlier this year, and it seems that their worries are being heard by the nation's top court. Judges are now reviewing petitions that claim the new U.S.-Philippines defense pact is unconstitutional.

Zagala, the Philippines Armed Forces spokesman, says plans for the Oyster Bay base development have been put on hold for now, but he doesn't expect the delay to be long.

Back in Macarascas, despite the protests, Jane Villarin says she hopes the plan will go through soon. In the meantime, she says locals are already getting familiar with American soldiers.

"The U.S. Navy, they came here last year and have some projects in our elementary school, in our barangay," she says.

And that she says, makes the Americans even more welcome for most residents here.

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