The Philippines is set to reopen a former United States naval facility, and station fighters and frigates there from early next year, reports said Wednesday. The move comes at a time when the Asian nation is stepping up its response to China's activities in the disputed South China Sea.
Subic Bay was one of the largest U.S. naval facilities in the world prior to its shutdown in 1992, after the Philippines terminated an agreement it had with the U.S. at the end of the cold war. The facility was then converted into an economic zone.
Philippines Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino told Reuters that the military had signed an agreement with the zone's operator in May to use parts of the installation for military purposes under a 15-year lease.
Security experts reportedly said that using Subic Bay would allow the Philippines to respond more quickly to territorial aggression in the disputed region, of which Beijing has claimed large swaths under its so-called "nine-dash" line that is not recognized by international bodies. Subic Bay's deep-water harbor lies on the western side of the island of Luzon, facing the South China Sea.
China has undertaken massive reclamation projects on islands in the region, including the construction of airstrips and military facilities, which has led to international condemnation from countries with competing claims including the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia.
"The value of Subic as a military base was proven by the Americans. Chinese defense planners know that," Philippine security expert Rommel Banlaoi said, according to Reuters.
The Philippines is in the process of a major military revamp in response to China's actions. The country announced a $20 billion overhaul of its armed forces in July. Manila also held several combined military exercises with the U.S. in April. It is also increasing its security cooperation with Japan and Vietnam.
The U.S. has also weighed in on the dispute, mulling the possibility of a stronger naval presence in the region and calling for China to halt its expansions. Washington has said that it will defend its allies' interests in the region.
Beijing said it was aware of the Philippines' plans of reopening the former naval base. "We hope that the Philippines does more to benefit regional peace and stability," China's defense ministry reportedly said in a statement.