The Philippines has begun using Subic Bay facing the South China Sea as a naval base, the country's navy said this week in a move aimed at countering China's increasing assertiveness in the contested waters.

One of the Philippine Navy's two guided-missile frigates was deployed at the new base on Tuesday, about 30 years after the U.S. Navy withdrew from the strategic area about 80 kilometers west of the capital Manila.

Philippine Navy officers are pictured with a frigate deployed at a new naval base in Subic Bay on May 24, 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Navy)(Kyodo)

The base sits on the roughly 100-hectare plot of a former shipyard acquired by U.S. private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP that has been leased to the navy. It is possible the U.S. military will seek joint use of the facility, which is located across the bay from the site of the former U.S. naval base.

The Philippine Air Force, meanwhile, plans to station aircraft at 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 U.S. base.

Following the U.S. withdrawal in November 1992, the former naval base was turned into a sprawling port known as Subic Bay Freeport. But 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 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 U.S. and Japanese naval vessels.

The port authority head also said a U.S. 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.

According to Zharrex Santos, an official in charge of operations at Subic Bay airport, the port authority signed an agreement with the Philippine 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.

The U.S. military forged an accord with the Philippines in 2014 to strengthen defense cooperation. The U.S. 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 U.S. Navy has used Subic Bay as its landing port when it conducts joint exercises with the Philippine Navy.

A small number of Philippine Navy vessels had already been stationed at the commercial port since the port authority agreed in 2015 to lease part of the port to the Philippine Navy for free.

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've said it before. I'll say it again," he said. "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."

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