As Obama plans Asia tour, postcard Philippines isle symbolizes U.S. pivot

Tue Oct 1, 2013 7:14pm EDT
 
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By Andrew R.C. Marshall and Manuel Mogato

OYSTER BAY, Philippines (Reuters) - Its mangrove-fringed coral reefs support an abundant fish population. Its deep, blue waters are unmuddied by the monsoons that batter the western Philippines coastline.

But a planned visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Asia starting this weekend could herald the start of dramatic changes to Oyster Bay, a postcard-perfect cove on Palawan Island that the Philippines expects to transform into a port for its naval frigates and eventually for American warships - all overlooking the disputed South China Sea.

Developing this remote island paradise into a military facility could exacerbate tensions with China, whose sovereignty claims over the vast, mineral-rich South China Sea, one of the world's most important waterways, set it directly against U.S. allies Vietnam and the Philippines. Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also claim parts of the sea.

Obama is scheduled to leave on Saturday on a four-nation, week-long tour to Asia. But the uncertainty caused by a government shutdown that began on Tuesday could force him to postpone his plans. "You know, we'll see obviously what happens as the week unfolds," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday.

At the moment, however, Obama is scheduled to round off his tour with a stopover in Manila, which is seen as a strong signal of U.S. support for the Philippines despite Washington's professed neutrality in the South China Sea dispute.

Rebuilding ties with the Philippines, including helping to upgrade its ill-equipped military, has been an important part of a U.S. rebalancing of its strategic focus towards Asia that is seen as a bid to check China's growing power.

President Benigno Aquino has launched a $1.8 billion modernization program and revived plans to build new air and naval bases at Subic Bay, the largest U.S. military installation in Southeast Asia before it was shuttered in 1992.

Also on the cards is the development of Oyster Bay, which lies about 550 km (340 miles) southwest of Manila.   Continued...

 
U.S. President Barack Obama takes his seat after arriving to address the 68th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 24, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Segar