OYSTER BAY, Palawan, Philippines – Its mangrove-fringed coral reefs support an abundant fish population. Its deep, blue waters are unmuddied by the monsoons that batter the western Philippine coastline.
Oyster Bay is a postcard-perfect cove in Palawan that the Philippines expects to transform into a port for its naval frigates and eventually for American warships – all overlooking the disputed West Philippine Sea.
Developing this remote island paradise into a military facility could exacerbate tensions with China, whose sovereignty claims over the vast, mineral-rich South China Sea, one of the world’s most important waterways, set it directly against US allies Vietnam and the Philippines.
Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also claim parts of the sea.
Rebuilding ties with the Philippines, including helping to upgrade its ill-equipped military, has been an important part of a US rebalancing of its strategic focus toward Asia that is seen as a bid to check China’s growing power.
President Aquino has launched a $1.8-billion modernization program and revived plans to build new air and naval bases at Subic Bay, the largest US military installation in Southeast Asia before it was shuttered in 1992.
Also in the cards is the development of Oyster Bay, which lies about 550 km southwest of Manila.
“It will be a mini-Subic,” Commodore Joseph Rostum Peña, commander of the Philippines’ western navy, said in the first public comments about converting Oyster Bay into a major naval base.
A future port here would extend the reach of the navy’s two frigates, both former US Coast Guard cutters, over the disputed Spratly Islands, he said in an interview from his office overlooking the mouth of the bay.
Long-held plans to develop the port were resurrected by Aquino after the US donated the frigates, now the Philippine Navy’s largest ships, in 2011 and 2012.
Oyster Bay is about 160 km from the Spratlys.
“In Manila, the leaders must move behind rhetorical blandishments about a new spirit of partnership and start to detail specific actions that will strengthen Philippine defense capabilities,” said Patrick Cronin, an Asia-Pacific security expert at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.