September 25, 2015 / 4:10 PM / 3 years ago

Spending ban may delay Philippine air support in South China Sea dispute: official

SUBIC BAY, Philippines (Reuters) - Plans to renovate an air base near Manila, enabling Philippine fighter jets to respond quickly to any Chinese moves in the disputed South China Sea, may face delays due to a spending ban before general elections, a senior official said on Friday.

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS

New fighter jets and two frigates are to be stationed at the former U.S. naval facility in Subic Bay northwest of the capital from early next year, the first time the massive installation will have functioned as a military base in 23 years.

Subic Bay’s deep-water harbor lies on the western side of the main Philippine island of Luzon, opposite the South China Sea, and is about 130 nautical miles (240 km) from Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop China seized control of in 2012.

China has built seven artificial islands on submerged shoals and outcrops in the area, which it says is part of its territory, and is believed to be constructing three airfields there.

Robert Garcia, chairman of Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, - which is overseeing the conversion of the industrial and commercial complex - said the military had to move quickly to repair the base’s airfield because a pre-election ban on military spending kicks in March.

The Philippines holds national elections in May.

“That is my concern, if the military does not get funding for the repairs, the air and naval bases may be delayed,” Garcia said, adding that South Korea was due to deliver the first two fighters in early December.

An air force general, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the government had yet to respond to a request for 100 million pesos ($2.14 million) to refurbish Subic’s airfield.

The Philippine Air Force has been allocated about 10 percent of the 200-hectare airport facilities to house a squadron of 12 FA50 light fighters for maritime security missions.

Once one of the biggest U.S. naval facilities in the world, Subic was shut in 1992 after the end of the Cold War.

“With the situation in the South China Sea right now, it looks like the presence of foreign troops will increase in coming months,” Garcia said, adding that approval by the Supreme Court of a new military pact with the United States would change the situation. A ruling is expected next month.

Reporting By Manuel Mogato; editing by John Stonestreet

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