U.S. likely to resume resupply missions to Filipino base in disputed South China Sea

The Philippines is expected to resume resupply missions to a U.S. naval base in the disputed South China Sea shortly after resuming the deployment of its warships to the Spratly Islands, a top official said Thursday.

Philippine officials suspended the resupply mission to Subic Bay in the Philippines in November after China accused Manila of trespassing on its territory. The navy had been resupplying the former American naval base and sending supplies to the U.S. 7th Fleet since July, including smaller helicopters, since China last year increased its presence there and expanded its military infrastructure.

Subic Bay was a major staging ground for the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, although less so now. The main U.S. presence is one Marine base, Camp Pendleton in California.

While other nations in the region, including the Philippines, do not want to antagonize China, the resumption of the supply mission likely will heighten tensions in the South China Sea between Beijing and Manila, a mutual rival of China’s.

“Philippine officials have already advised the top brass of the U.S. Navy about the resumption of supply missions,” Ramon de Jesus, the chief of staff of the Philippines Navy, told reporters.

Under a 2002 agreement, the Philippines and the United States share aircraft and naval resources and conducted joint patrols off Subic Bay until 2014. The military presence left under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has reached out to China and has sought Beijing’s support in the dispute with the Philippines and the United States over the South China Sea.

Disagreements over the south China Sea “miserably endeared us to Chinese leader Xi Jinping,” de Jesus said. “They might need us to maintain peace and stability in the region. But the American presence was degrading the area.”

Aboard the Philippines’ maritime patrol helicopter C-30, De Jesus lauded the United States for “being reliable and continuous partner in battling crime.”

“It’s not a panacea for everything, but it’s a kick-starter to continue to solve other issues that are very sensitive to the Chinese,” he said, referring to insurgencies by Muslim secessionists in the south of the country and Muslim piracy off the country’s northern coast.

“When China exercised too much influence in the region, especially since China was developing a fleet there for the first time, when the Philippine Navy called for a fleet like the U.S. did, they refused to cooperate,” he said.

De Jesus also discussed the arrest of U.S. Navy sailor Jose Rodarte on Feb. 5 on suspicion of trespassing on the China side of the disputed islands. Rodarte is in custody for alleged trying to steal fishing gear, according to Chinese media.

The incident has raised tensions. Last week, the Philippines protested to China about the detention, saying the basic standards of law and human rights were violated.

In addition to the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to parts of the South China Sea, through which some $5 trillion of global trade passes every year. China claims virtually the entire sea, covering nearly 90 percent of the ocean.

The Philippine military, which has a larger naval presence in Manila than it does in Subic Bay, decided to resume the naval resupply mission after it was informed by the U.S. Navy that the vessels might have entered the maritime area in China’s territorial waters, de Jesus said.

“They were more careful not to go into Chinese territory,” he said.

Subic Bay alone has about 250 military personnel stationed there on a permanent basis, plus about 200 on rotation, and an additional 3,000 guard functions. The U.S. Navy established the base as the home of its 7th Fleet in the 1960s.

On Nov. 18, China for the first time denied foreign vessels permission to enter its 12-mile territorial waters off the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. The United States maintains only an observer mission there, but China called the vessels intruders.

The Navy issued a statement warning sailors to stay away from the zone, the U.S. Embassy in Manila said. The seizure of maritime intelligence by outsiders is considered an egregious violation of international law.

But beyond the initial confrontation, Philippine officials allowed the resupply missions to continue for security reasons. Their rationale was to protect the lives of the personnel and protect the sea lanes needed by ships seeking passage and resupply.

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