Shrinking Link to Manila

May 17, 1991

The deployment of massive U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf last year highlighted the decreasing importance of American bases elsewhere. The likelihood of U.S. involvement in an East Asian war is diminishing, though not gone. North Korea remains an over-armed threat, even while its bellicosity toward the South moderates. U.S. relations with China have soured, but are likely to improve after a change in leadership there. Another American involvement in Indochina is difficult to imagine, though several states in the region would welcome a U.S. presence guaranteeing a Cambodian settlement.

The air and naval bases in the Philippines that the U.S. has occupied all this century, and that loomed large in support of past American actions in Asia, still play a role. The current lease runs out in September and negotiations on a new bases agreement are stalled. Such an agreement might substitute the Philippines flag for the Stars and Stripes at some installations and schedule a phase-down of American use of the giant Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base.

The negotiations are caught up in the fragile Philippines political climate, with the shaky regime of Corazon Aquino deferring more to anti-American sentiment than it might wish. The Philippines proposes to allow the United States to keep the bases for seven years in return for $825 million annually. U.S. officials have offered $360 million a year to keep Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay naval base for 10 to 12 years. Japan is typical of the Asian countries that want a U.S. presence in the Philippines and which are now, finally, starting to say so. As part of Japan's growing assertiveness after decades of passivity in foreign affairs, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu visited Manila to ask Mrs. Aquino to reach agreement with the U.S.

The special relationship between the United States and the Philippines will not end in one fell swoop. But it will progressively count for less. Whether the Philippines wants to remain a U.S. ally is up to the Philippines. That is in its interest. It is also in Japan's, as Mr. Kaifu made clear. But Mrs. Aquino's weakness domestically is making her bargaining posture with an ally tougher. The mutual need for a Philippines-American link may be diminished; it is not over.

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