America Eyes Up Subic Bay Return: a crucial step in countering China

The United States Navy could soon be returning to Subic Bay in the Philippines, a staple of its Cold War presence in the Pacific. Talks between Washington and Manila are proposing that up to eight military bases are made available for American troops in the Philippines in the coming few years.

Subic Bay Naval Base under US control
Subic Bay Naval Base under US control

The reason? China; and, more specifically, Chinese power projection in the South China Sea, a waterway dotted with numerous disputed islets, reefs and atolls. The Philippines is one of the major claimant states to parts of this territory, along with Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan. However, China claims that the entire Sea is within its territorial sphere and Beijing has taken concrete steps in recent months to enforce this idea, including extensive land reclamation around the islands it currently occupies.

These actions – which are illegal and have been pitifully opposed by the international community – are unsurprisingly a major cause for concern for the ‘weaker’ claimants, including the Philippines. Over twenty years since Corazon Aquino’s government asked the US Navy to vacate Subic Bay – the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 had also highlighted a potential vulnerability of the base – the Philippines government now seems open to an American return.

Interestingly, the Subic Bay base was initially built by the Spanish in 1885 during their period of colonial rule in the Philippines. It would change hands – along with vast amounts of other territory – after the 1898 Treaty of Paris which ended the Spanish-American War. Inadvertently, the freedom-touting Americans had become an imperial power.

To try and distance themselves from the role of colonial masters, the American administration in the Philippines delegated much of the day-to-day running of the country to intermediaries, members of the indigenous elite who could mediate between the citizenry and the government. This only served, however, to entrench an oligarchic system which would remain in place after the Philippines gained independence.

What is more, the Americans ‘locked the Philippines into a highly restrictive set of trade agreements during the first three decades of the twentieth century, effectively cementing its dependence on the USA’. (Beeson, 2007) This only really benefited the landholding elites, part of that same oligarchy used as a tool by the Americans to impose their will upon the people.

Whilst the Filipinos were undoubtedly happy to see the back of the Spaniards, they were miffed to find one colonial power replacing another. This precipitated the Philippine-America War (1899-1902), effectively a continuation of the revolution started to overthrow the Spanish administration in 1896.

US Marines during the Philippine-American War
US Marines during the American-Philippine War

Initially, the naval base at Subic Bay was held by Filipino forces and they even set up an artillery battery there that proved a great frustration to American troops. After several attempts to wrest control of the area from the rebels, the Americans finally managed to destroy the battery in December 1899 and it remained in their possession for the best part of the next 50 years.

During WWII, however, another chapter in the base’s history was written. In 1942 rampant Japanese forces encircled Subic Bay, forcing the evacuation of the base by American and Filipino personnel, who destroyed everything possible on the eve of their retreat. It would take nearly three years and a bloody campaign in the Pacific for the Americans to win back control of this precious staging post. Indeed, Subic Bay would remain a bulwark of American power-projection during the Cold War and was kept extremely busy during the messy conflict in Vietnam.

American troops advance past a dead Japanese soldier during the bloody Philippine Campaign of WWII
American troops advance past a dead Japanese soldier during the bloody Philippine Campaign of WWII

The end of the Cold War reduced the requirement for the Americans to retain Subic Bay and the Philippines government was keen to regain sole ownership of all its military and naval facilities. The order for the American withdrawal in 1992 now seems premature, however, with China’s insatiable march across the South China Sea potentially upsetting the balance of power in the Pacific before the Americans and their allies can even respond.

Without the constant travails in the Middle East, it is likely that the Obama administration would have followed through with its ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific and provided more consistent and staunch support to its regional allies, who are desperate for a US presence to counter Chinese assertiveness.

Rhetoric and symbolic gestures – such as B-52 flybys and naval patrols close to China’s artificial islands – are pathetically weak and will not faze Beijing which is continuing to strengthen its naval capabilities, with a second aircraft carrier now under construction. 

Subic Bay needs to be re-occupied by American forces and quickly, if only as a statement of intent far greater than any threatening words. Scaling back in the Middle East is a difficult prospect but something that the next administration in Washington must consider. Peace in the Middle East is a pipe dream, Iran’s nuclear programme is stalled for now and none of the sectarian violence that plagues the region is an existential threat to America, whatever the Islamic State may be capable of on foreign shores.

President Obama walks alongside Philippines President Benigno 'Noynoy' Aquino whose mother oversaw the US withdrawal from Subic Bay
President Obama walks alongside Philippines President Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino whose mother oversaw the US withdrawal from Subic Bay

China is keeping quiet and accumulating voraciously, whilst its neighbours cower at the growing might of the Red Dragon. It is time that America started supporting its true allies, not the faux friends it purports to maintain in the Middle East. The next President has some big decisions to make for sure.



Beeson, M. Regionalism & Globalization in East Asia (2007)

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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