How to Stay in the Philippines

September 28, 1990

The United States and the Philippines should find common ground in negotiating new U.S. leases on bases in the Philippines.

President Corazon Aquino called for the "orderly withdrawal" of some 17,000 U.S. service personnel from six bases. U.S. chief negotiator Richard Armitage talked of a gradual phasing out. The 1947 treaty that gives U.S. control of six facilities ends next September 16. The Philippines constitution of 1987 forbids foreign troops or bases after then unless allowed by treaty ratified by the Philippines senate or electorate.

Philippines and U.S. interests are not far apart. Philippines self-consciousness about sovereignty is uppermost when the government is fragile. The need to be seen talking tough to the U.S. contradicts the desperate importance of 78,000 Filipino civilian jobs that the bases support and an annual $1 billion boost to the economy. The U.S. needs to streamline its military presence for the new world order. The U.S. has bases in Guam and Hawaii under its own flag, and friends in Singapore and elsewhere who do not want it to leave Asia.

The Philippines wants an immediate transfer of Clark Air Base to Philippines control for use as a civilian airport when the treaty expires. But it contemplates continued U.S. use of Clark for military airlift on a commercial basis. The U.S. wants to stay at part of Subic Bay Naval Station, especially the ship repair yards, for at least another decade. Again, a commercial leasing arrangement is conceivable. The Philippines is incensed that Congress has not appropriated all the aid called for in the existing treaty and wants it replaced by definite rental. The U.S. recoils at the numbers that Filipino politicians suggest.

In other words, the outlines of a reasonable compromise are apparent. The curious aspect Filipino politicians ought to remember is that a show of Philippines sovereignty is more imperative for them than for the people they purport to represent. A public opinion survey last March by Ateneo University showed that 35 percent of Filipinos polled did not know the United States maintains bases there, 18 percent wanted them closed or phased out and 40 percent wanted them maintained indefinitely.

The U.S. will remain a Pacific power. Most Asian nations want it to, from latent fear of each other. The U.S. needs to maintain but reduce its military posture to meet changing needs, which include weapons proliferation in the Third World and a balanced U.S. budget. A new agreement consistent with Philippines self-esteem and U.S. interests is reachable. It would also reconcile Philippines economic needs with Pacific Rim stability.

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