SUBIC BAY, Philippines — It was once the rock-solid symbol of one of the deepest and most enduring U.S. alliances in the region. Today this massive but long-shuttered U.S. Navy base is just one more question mark in a confused and evolving relationship at a time of major strategic changes in both Manila and Washington.
But even before China’s navy seized an American underwater drone near here last month, speculation swirled over how the Subic Bay military base — a 262-square-mile expanse that at one time was America’s largest U.S. military installation outside the borders of the U.S. — might be transformed once again if tensions with China turn truly hot during the soon-to-be-installed Trump administration. Factor in the changes already wrought here by populist President Rodrigo Duterte, and the future of the once equally rock-solid U.S.-Philippines alliance is as uncertain as at any time in decades.
The politics and diplomacy may be murky, but, based on a visit to the area late last month, the infrastructure here is ready to roll.
“Everything’s in place; the facilities still exist,” says Jack Walker, a retired Marine Corps sergeant among the some 14,000 American veterans who reside around Subic and nearby Angeles city, the former home of Clark Air Base.
While both bases closed more than two decades ago, U.S. Navy ships have been making port visits here since 2012, and Mr. Walker predicts things “could be quickly repopulated” if Mr. Trump decides to confront China over its airstrip construction and other activities in the heavily contested water of the strategic South China Sea.
“There’s empty hangars galore that could be refurbished,” the 65-year-old former Marine noted, looking out at the surf along Waterfront Road in the heart of what locals here used to call “Little America.”
But the extent to which U.S. forces, whose 1992 departure from Subic came amid a flurry of anti-colonialist fervor in the Filipino government, might suddenly try to re-engage on a mass scale here — or anywhere else in the Philippines, for that matter — has become an increasingly difficult thing to forecast.
Analysts say the future of U.S.-Philippines relations, and quite possibly of America’s overall footprint in the region, now hinges on a huge unknown: Will incoming President Donald Trump get along or clash with his equally unpredictable Filipino counterpart, Mr. Duterte?
Some here believe Mr. Trump and Mr. Duterte, a 71-year-old maverick and longtime provincial mayor who rode his own wave of politically incorrect populism to power last year, are two peas in a pod — tell-it-like-it-is outsiders who will naturally click and cut a deal for U.S. forces to return to the Philippines in a big way.
“Duterte and Trump are the same; that’s why I think the U.S. and the Philippines will tie up again with close relations,” said Jo-Jo Nuyles, a 55-year-old taxi driver here.
“I’m 120 percent sure about this. Duterte has a style like Dirty Harry. It’s a very nice style. Trump has the same style. He is like the U.S. Duterte.”
Others say it’s a recipe for disaster: two largely untested leaders with a penchant for incendiary rhetoric and sharp policy swerves facing a rising China singularly focused on expanding its sphere of influence in the world’s most dynamic economic region.
Already Mr. Duterte has sent sharply mixed signals over whether he wants to confront or accommodate China over clashing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, while igniting some nasty policy and diplomatic disputes with the outgoing Obama administration. That has left many skeptical that he and Mr. Trump can come together to resolve a stalled agreement to allow U.S. forces semipermanent access to Filipino military bases.
Even before taking office, Mr. Trump seems partial to high-stakes saber-rattling with China, a policy unlikely to sit well with Mr. Duterte, who’s spent recent months reaching out to Beijing — even declaring a “separation” from the U.S. in favor of new Chinese and Russian ties.
The Filipino president’s call was a major setback for President Obama’s vaunted “pivot to Asia” policy of rallying smaller Asian nations like the Philippines to stand with Washington against Chinese economic and military muscle-flexing.
Limiting American access
The policy was working here — until Mr. Duterte’s electoral victory last year upended the political landscape.
Under predecessor Benigno Aquino, the Philippines had joined South China Sea patrols with the U.S. Navy, and even allowed the brief U.S. deployment warplanes and about 120 personnel for a training mission aimed at ensuring future Filipino and U.S. access to the sea.
But relations soured after Mr. Duterte took power in June, as Mr. Obama criticized a rise of human rights abuses associated with the new Filipino president’s harsh domestic campaign to fight drug trafficking.
Mr. Duterte responded by hurling obscene insults at Mr. Obama and asserting that he planned a review and heightened scrutiny of a major 2014 defense cooperation pact. Mr. Duterte, who has openly said he is waiting for the new Trump administration to reassess relations, stopped short of saying he would revoke the 70-year-old U.S.-Philippines treaty alliance, but the irritants in the relationship show no signs of easing.
The Filipino president last month said he was considering revoking the “Visiting Forces” agreement overseeing U.S. troop transits here after learning the Millennium Challenge Corp. was suspending its aid program with Manila over “concerns around the rule of law and civil liberties.” Saying that China could replace the lost funding, Mr. Duterte told reporters, “What do I need America for? They did not look at us kindly; we have this huge problem.”
Sources in Subic say his administration has gone to lengths to make sure the U.S. Navy knows who they’re dealing with.
While the Pentagon has a logistics contract in Subic with the South Korean firm Hajin Heavy Industries, locals here say U.S. combat ships have had a hard time getting “diplomatic clearance” to access the port since Mr. Duterte came to power in June.
Prior to Mr. Duterte, at least two or three U.S. warships were coming a week. “That’s slowed down now,” said Norman Tuzon, another retired Marine Corps veteran living near Subic, who believes Mr. Duterte is “showing that [the Filipinos] have the power” to limit the American access if they like.
The U.S. Navy denies there’s been any delays in port access. “The diplomatic clearance process for visiting U.S. Navy ships to the Philippines continued without disruption throughout 2016,” Lt. Paul Newell, a spokesman for the Navy’s 7th Fleet, said when asked about the matter last week.
“We have not had difficulty coordinating with Philippine government officials at Subic Bay or other ports in the Philippines,” he said.
But other Navy officials, who spoke on background with The Times, said nerves are on edge over Mr. Duterte’s negative posturing toward the U.S. “There’s a lot of uncertainty around Duterte,” one of the officials said.
It’s a situation that fits with unease expressed by some regional security analysts, who worry Mr. Trump and Mr. Duterte could end up in a personality clash that triggers unpredictable fallout on both sides in the coming years.
A coup on the horizon?
“Right now, we’re seeing Duterte already going further with the Chinese than any other U.S. ally in the region,” said John Blaxland, a former Australian military intelligence official who believes it’s possible the Filipino president might go so far as to invite China’s navy to begin accessing certain Filipino ports.
“We’ve not seen evidence of that being discussed yet, but if you think about the trajectory we’ve witnessed over the last three months, an action akin to that would be consistent with that trajectory,” said Mr. Blaxland, who teaches at the Australian National University. “That’s a very worrying prospect. If Duterte allows access rights to Chinese military vessels, or some kind of air and sea access to Philippine airstrips and ports, then China has really won.”
“The question,” Mr. Blaxland added, “is will the Philippine military, which is pro-American and already wary of Mr. Duterte’s flirtation with China, allow that, and whether a Trump presidency would perhaps condone a coup to overthrow Duterte if things turn so drastic.
“You’ve got to put this on the table,” he said. “We frankly don’t know what the Trump presidency’s policy will be toward Southeast Asia.”
U.S. military officials, including the head of U.S. Pacific Command, have sought to play down the uncertainty ahead of Mr. Trump’s inauguration. Adm. Harry B. Harris told an audience in Australia recently that “reports of America’s abandonment of the Indo-Asia-Pacific are greatly exaggerated.”
U.S. forces conducted exercises with India, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Japan in November and December, according to Adm. Harris, who said he personally visited Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines during that time.
But nerves were on edge a few days after the admiral’s speech, when a Chinese naval vessel suddenly seized a U.S. underwater drone just off the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Beijing returned the drone on Dec. 20, but not without complaints from U.S. officials, who claimed the vehicle was operating “legally” in international waters 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay. Mr. Trump, through his famous Twitter feed, was even more provocative, tweeting last month: “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back. Let them keep it!”
A ‘U.S. Navy town’
It’s hard to overstate the strategic value of what was once a vast outpost for American might in the Pacific and a keystone to U.S. security plans in the region. The 60,000-acre port here is situated hundreds of miles closer than any other American military post to disputed islands being contested by Beijing with the Philippines and many other smaller countries in the region, including Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
But officials from the Navy’s 7th fleet, which operates U.S. ships, submarines and aircraft between bases in Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Guam, are loathe to speak openly about the sticky politics around the U.S.-Philippines relationship.
“Our relationship with the Philippine Navy is strong and remains so. Our exercises, engagements and port visits in the Philippines remain routine,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Arlo Abramson told The Washington Times in an email statement, adding that a “mutually agreed upon plan” is in place to ensure joint U.S.-Filipino training activities “remain robust and substantial” in 2017.
It remains to be seen how such activities will play out. While Mr. Duterte could disrupt them, concern also lingers over a disturbing 2014 incident that saw a Filipina sex worker killed by a U.S. Marine who’d participated in a joint exercises that was held that year.
The episode sparked anger in the Philippines and calls for the removal of all U.S. military personnel. But many in Olongapo today hope the incident won’t deter from the prospect of a revamped American presence at Subic and the U.S. dollars that would come with it.
The Philippine government drew foreign investment to the area during the 1990s by establishing the Subic Bay Freeport Zone on land where the U.S. base used to be. The tax- and duty-free zone now hosts South Korean and Japanese companies.
But the money it generates for locals pales in comparison to what went on during the 1970s and 1980s, when some 40,000 U.S. military personnel were here.
“The hope is that the Trump presidency is going to bring a new era of U.S. military activity here,” said Oscar Santos, a 66-year-old restaurant and hotel operator in the area. He maintains that even the small flow of American ships that visited Subic over the past year pumped roughly $500 million into the local economy.
Photos of U.S. sailors relaxing in Olongapo during the 1970s adorn a corridor inside City Hall, where Vice Mayor Aquilino “Jong” Cortez Jr. touts how the city has forged a “sister city” agreement with Virginia Beach over the past two years, exchanging delegations of local officials and students.
On a recent stroll through Olongapo, Mr. Cortez reflected fondly on the U.S. military’s rich history in the city and nearby Subic Bay. “When we were growing up, people would say that Olongapo is Little America,” he said. “The U.S. Navy town.”