A bill has been filed at the House of Representatives allocating an initial PHP5 billion to install 12 naval outposts in areas of the West Philippine Sea where China has put up its own military structures particularly Thitu island but Beijing lost no time protesting against the plan.  

China Defense Ministry spokesman Tang Kefei said China was “resolutely opposed” to any Philippine installation on Thitu.

“China’s military will unswervingly safeguard national territory, sovereignty and maritime rights, while resolutely maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Tang said, without elaborating at a monthly briefing.

House Bill 9420, or the proposed Philippine Navy Forward Operating Bases Act, is authored by Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel, chairman of the House Strategic Intelligence committee, aims to “protect and preserve the vast natural gas deposits, as well as the lush marine life in our strategic waters for the enjoyment of future generations of Filipinos.” 

Under the bill, four of the Forward Operating Base (FOB) facilities shall be positioned on Luzon’s western seaboard and three on the eastern coast.

The FOBs envisioned to guard the West Philippine Sea (WPS) shall be established in Lubang Island in Mindoro Occidental; Subic Bay in Zambales, and in the Palawan towns of Busuanga and Balabac.

Those intended to keep watch over the Philippine Rise (formerly Benham Rise) shall be put up in Polillo Island in Quezon, and in the towns of Divilacan and Casiguran in Isabela and Aurora, respectively.

Five other FOBs shall also be built in Mavulis Island in Batanes; Allen, Northern Samar; Surigao City; Sarangani, Davao Occidental, and in Mapun Island, Tawi-Tawi.

The bill defines an FOB as an outpost where the Navy can carry out its basic functions and duties, and which can later be upgraded and expanded for national security purposes.

In military parlance, an FOB is a secured outpost that can serve as a springboard for sustained remote operations.

“We expect the outposts to serve as the future staging and resupply sites for the Navy’s new generation of warships and battle craft,” Pimentel said.

On top of the two multi-role guided missile frigates recently put into service, the Philippine Navy is procuring 16 new warships – another four frigates and 12 corvettes – between now and 2028.

It is also buying 18 offshore patrol vessels, 40 fast attack interdiction craft and 42 smaller multi-purpose assault boats.

The Department of Foreign Affairs fired off another diplomatic protest last week against the persistent deployment and “illegal activities of Chinese maritime assets and fishing vessels” around Pag-asa Island and demanded their withdrawal.

Pimentel has repeatedly stated it is imperative that the government establishes what is deemed as Naval “forward operating bases” to further protect the country’s maritime territory that has been claimed by China through its continued incursions.

“We want the Philippine Navy positioned to prevent China from asserting administrative control over any reefs, rocks or lagoons within our 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone,” he suggested. 

“We should avoid a repeat of the 2012 incident where China was able to occupy Bajo de Masinloc,” Pimentel pointed out, referring to the loss of Scarborough shoal to China during the Aquino administration. 

“The Navy should put up new FOBs in Palawan – one in the Municipality of Balabac and one in the Municipality of Busuanga – as part of its strategic basing plan, plus a third FOB in Subic Bay, which is only 123 nautical miles west of Bajo de Masinloc,” he said.

“We expect the Navy’s two lead warships to be posted in the FOBs and to routinely operate in the West Philippine Sea,” Pimentel added, referring to the multi-role guided missile frigates BRP Jose Rizal and BRP Antonio Luna.

In the 2012 standoff, Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels blocked access to Bajo de Masinloc. They thwarted the BRP Gregorio del Pilar from accosting Chinese boats caught illegally fishing in the area.