Repairs in Subic Bay urgent for air support in West PH Sea row

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New fighter jets and two frigates are to be stationed at the former U.S. naval facility in Subic Bay early next year.

(Reuters) — Plans to renovate an air base near Manila, enabling Philippine fighter jets to respond quickly to any Chinese moves in the disputed West Philippine Sea, may face delays due to a spending ban before general elections, a senior official said on Friday (September 25).

New fighter jets and two frigates are to be stationed at the former U.S. naval facility in Subic Bay northwest of the capital from early next year, the first time the massive installation will have functioned as a military base in 23 years.

Robert Garcia, chairman of Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority — which is overseeing the conversion of the industrial and commercial complex — said the military had to move quickly to repair the base's airfield because a pre-election ban on military spending starts in March.

The Philippines holds national elections in May.

"There is urgency because the 12 jets are already starting to arrive. In December this year there will be two already. And then the balance are coming in 2016. So they really have to rush the repairs," Garcia said, referring to fighter jets purchased from South Korea.

Subic Bay's deep-water harbor lies on the western side of the main Philippine island of Luzon, opposite the West PH Sea, and is about 130 nautical miles (240 km) from Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop China seized control of in 2012.

"With the situation in the South China Sea right now, especially in Subic, because Panatag Shoal is just 120 miles from here, it looks like this presence of foreign troops will increase in the coming months," he said, referring to Scarborough Shoal, which lies in disputed territory.

China has built seven artificial islands on submerged shoals and outcrops in the area, which it says is part of its territory, and is believed to be constructing three airfields there.

China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.

"We find that this is essential for our national security, again because we are so close to Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal). And we are, we are very disappointed with the Chinese action in Panatag Shoal. These are traditional Filipino fishing grounds. Our Filipino fishermen from the province of Zambales and Pangasinan can no no longer fish in Panatag Shoal, because they are being water cannoned," Garcia said.

Last April, Manila said China's coast guard used water cannon to drive away a group of Filipino fishermen at Scarborough Shoal, damaging some of their wooden boats. Chinese ships rammed a fishing boat in the area a few months before.

"The situation is very delicate, and it's important that the Philippines shows a strong front, and we are able to maintain our internal security. That's why welcome all of these developments," Garcia said.

An air force general, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the press, said the government had yet to respond to a request for 100 million pesos ($2.14 million) to refurbish Subic's airfield.

Subic Bay's Alava pier, which can accommodate an aircraft carrier, is in need of a P3-billion repair (64 million USD), Garcia said.

The Philippine Air Force has been allocated about 10 percent of the 200-hectare airport facilities to house a squadron of 12 FA50 light fighters for maritime security missions.

Once one of the biggest U.S. naval facilities in the world, Subic was shut in 1992 after the end of the Cold War.

Garcia said that approval by the Supreme Court of a new military pact with the United States would change the situation. A ruling is expected next month.