As fears grow that China is on an aggressive South China Sea territorial grab, a sleepy Philippine village is being transformed into a major naval base that may host US warships.
Ulugan Bay, a picturesque cove encircled by mangroves, has suddenly become a vital part of the Philippine military’s efforts to shore up its defense of the sea’s contested islands and waters.
“This is the frontline of our territorial defense operations in the Kalayaan Island group,” Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said last month as he inspected the progress of a recently announced upgrade of a tiny naval station there.
Ulugan is on the west coast of the Philippine island of Palawan, 160km from a group of islands and islets within the Spratlys Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙島), known in the Philippines as the Kalayaan group.
The Spratlys are among the most prized assets in the decades-long struggle for control of parts of the South China Sea and are claimed by Taiwan, China, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The sea has such importance because about half the world’s shipping trade passes through it, it is believed to contain enormous deposits of gas and has rich fishing grounds.
Taiwan and China say they have sovereign rights to large swaths of the sea, conflicting with the claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Brunei to areas closer to their coasts.
Manila and Hanoi have expressed growing alarm in recent years at Beijing’s increasingly assertive tactics to stake its claims.
Most recently, the Philippines has accused China of reclaiming land at tiny reefs in the Spratlys to create artificial islands that may be used to build air strips and other military installations.
In direct response to the fears over China, the Philippines has sought help from longtime ally the US to bolster its poorly equipped armed forces with new hardware and training.
Manila and Washington signed a new security pact when US President Barack Obama visited the Philippines in April that will soon allow a much greater US military presence on Philippines soil, including on expanded bases.
At Ulugan Bay, there is currently just a tiny naval station that serves as the command center for the Philippine military unit responsible for safeguarding the country’s claimed South China Sea waters.
A small pier stands at the bay’s most prized asset, a deep inlet called Oyster Bay with rich fishing grounds that help sustain the 1,700 residents of Macarascas village.
As part of the upgrade, a much bigger pier, harbor and support facilities are being built to serve as a base for the navy’s largest vessels, including two ex-US frigates.
Aquino said the upgrade would also allow the navy to monitor ships by radar and conduct maritime surveillance through a satellite-based system. In effect, Aquino said it would give the Philippines a greater ability to survey and defend what it says are its waters of the South China Sea.
However, just 500 million pesos (US$11.4 million) is being spent on the Ulugan upgrade and analysts say the Philippines will not come close to having the capabilities to deter China, which spent US$119.5 billion on its military last year.