Return of US forces to Subic possible

By Robert Gonzaga

SUBIC BAY FREEPORT - High-level visits here by American officials have raised the prospect of a return of the United States' military presence in this former naval base in the wake of disasters that hit Japan, which have delayed the planned US military build-up in Guam.

US Senators Daniel Inouye and Thad Cochran visited this free port on Tuesday and met with Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) and Olongapo City officials.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer learned of the visit but was told that it was "not open to press coverage."

In March, US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas Jr. also met with local officials and briefed them about the impact of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on the transfer of US military bases in Okinawa to Guam. The visit was not announced to reporters here.

Inouye and Cochran, chair and ranking member, respectively, of the US Senate committee on appropriations, appeared to be interested in the possibility of an increased presence of the US military in the country, a source present at the luncheon meeting for the visiting senators hosted by Subic and local officials told the Inquirer.

The source, who asked not to be named for lack of authority to speak on the matter, said: "Their official reason for being here was to obtain a situationer of developments in the area and to consult with local officials about these. They even brought their technical staff. During the discussion, they were curious about the reception in the country of an [increased presence of the US military] here."

The source also said the US embassy "gave strict instructions that [the media] not be allowed to cover the visit."

"Their embassy arranged the logistics of the visit directly with Olongapo City [officials], and not the SBMA," the source said.

Facilities in the free port that can be used by the US military, like the airport and seaport, are intact, according to the source.

"Even now, they are already using it as part of the VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement). But if they substantially increase their presence here, then the free port can still accommodate them," the source further said.

Olongapo mayor for US return

Olongapo Mayor James Gordon Jr. said the senators wanted to see the success of the free port, which the Americans left 20 years ago after the Philippine Senate rejected a treaty extending the stay of US military bases in the country.

"They were amazed by what they saw," Gordon said.

Asked if he would support a return of the US military in Subic, Gordon said: "Of course, we would welcome it. We want two economies here-the one that is free port-based and the other [which relies on support services] to the US military. They can coexist here."

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