ULUGAN BAY - 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 small, picturesque cove encircled by thick mangroves, has suddenly become a vital part of the Philippine military's efforts to shore up its defence of contested South China Sea islands and waters.
"This is the frontline of our territorial defence operations in the Kalayaan island group," President Benigno Aquino declared last month as he inspected the progress of a recently announced upgrade of a tiny naval station on the bay.
Ulugan is on the west coast of the large western Philippine island of Palawan, only 160 kilometres (100 miles) from a small group of islands and islets within the Spratly archipelago known locally as the Kalayaan group.
The Spratlys are among the most prized assets in the decades-long but increasingly hostile struggle for control of parts of the South China Sea.
The sea has such importance because roughly half the world's shipping trade passes through it, while it is believed to contain enormous deposits of natural gas and has rich fishing grounds.
China and Taiwan say they have sovereign rights to nearly all of the sea, conflicting with the claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei to areas closer to their coasts.
The Philippines and Vietnam have expressed growing alarm in recent years at China'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 in effect create artificial islands that may be used to build air strips and other military installations.
Philippines seeks US security blanket
In direct response to the fears over China, the Philippines has sought help from longtime ally the United States to bolster its poorly equipped armed forces with new hardware and training.
The Philippines and the United States also signed a new security pact when US President Barack Obama visited Manila in April that will soon allow a much greater American military presence on Filipino soil, including on expanded bases.