Fishermen sail past the Ulugan and Oyster Bay navy bases into waters of the South China Sea, Sept. 15, 2014. (Jason Strother/VOA)
As boats from the small fishing
village of Macarascas head out into the waters of the South
China Sea, off Palawan’s west coast, they pass by the Philippines’
navy base. Ulugan Bay
Village council leader Jane Villarin said she worries about the tensions between her country and
China in what is known
here as the .
And for that reason, she does not mind having the base so close by. West Philippines Sea
“It’s protection for us. We live here in the
so that’s our fear. That’s why the naval, the West
Philippines Sea navy is welcomed here
because of that,” said Villarin. Philippines
Villarin added that she would welcome the American navy too.
Following the April summit between President Barack Obama and
leader Benigno Aquino,
that could become reality. Philippines
“Today I’m pleased that we are beginning an important new chapter in the relationship between our two countries and its starts with our security with the new defense cooperation agreement that was signed today,” said Obama during that trip.
The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA, opens the door for American forces to rotate through existing Filipino military bases. That includes facilities at Oyster Bay, which is located within Palawan’s
base. Ulugan Bay
Oyster Bay is located 160 kilometers from the disputed Spratly islands in the
South China Sea.
says the Chinese military is building outposts on Filipino reefs in these
waters and harasses its naval forces. Manila
Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala, chief public affairs officer for the Armed Forces of the
Philippines, said the presently undeveloped Oyster Bay base is a promising site for American and
Filipino forces to work together as outlined in the new defense pact.
“The very purpose of that base is to enhance our defense capabilities westward to the
. Oyster Bay is one of
those that we want to offer to the West Philippines
Sea so we can develop
it,” said Zagala. United States
Zagala added that if
Washington accepts the offer, Oyster Bay
would still be a ’
military base and not an American one. Philippines
He said the development of the Ulugan or Oyster Bay facilities with
U.S. help is not meant to provoke . China
“I think it is our right and it the duty of the Armed Forces of the
to protect our
interests. They should not see the development of Ulugan bay as a threat.
We are merely protecting our interests and our sovereignty,” said Zagala. Philippines
In May, Chinese President Xi Jingping warned Southeast Asian countries not to form military alliances aimed at a third party. That has been read throughout the region as a message not to try to stop
advances into the South China Sea, especially
with American help.
Some observers say the EDCA only agitates
Political analyst Richard Heydarian at Ateneo de Manila University said that after the
Philippines lost the Scarborough Shoal to
Chinese forces in 2012, the Aquino administration rushed to get the involved
in the territorial dispute. He thinks the EDCA might have been left
intentionally vague to persuade U.S.
to sign on now. Washington
“There are multiple dimensions to the EDCA that show the
negotiated with a
weaker hand,” said Heydarian. Philippines
He said that includes what the
will actually be if Filipino and Chinese forces exchange fire, how any joint
American and Filipino bases, like Oyster Bay,
would be funded in the long term, and what environmental safeguards will be
followed in developing such facilities.
Environmental protection is a top concern on
of which is a designated conservation zone. Oyster Bay
itself is home to a mangrove forest and a variety of wildlife, say advocates.
It is over these concerns that the Puerto Princesa city government opposes the expansion of the Ulugan and
Oyster Bay bases.
Elizabeth Maclang, a national park superintendent for Puerto Princesa, said development would have a detrimental impact on local communities.
“If you cut the mangroves, it will greatly affect their livelihoods. In the event of human error, it will greatly affect all the resources that come from
it’s a fish spawning area also,” said Maclang. Ulugan Bay
But, Maclang said, if the
armed forces decide that base development is a part of national security, there
is little the local government can do to stop it. Philippines
Villarin, from the Macarascas community council, said she is also concerned about potential environmental damage. But she explained that for the people in this poor village, or barangay, the naval base expansion could bring in more jobs.
“It’s a sign of development in our barangay. Maybe more business to come, progress in our barangay,” said Villarin.
The development could still be halted. Opponents of the new U.S.-Philippines defense agreement have filed petitions in the
Supreme Court. If the pact is ruled unconstitutional, then Philippines Oyster
Bay might remain as it is.