Pinatubo Calls the Shots

June 24, 1991

No sensible estimate of the continuing U.S. interest in its mighty Philippines bases is possible until Mount Pinatubo goes back to sleep. Far from doing that, vulcanologists say, it is preparing more eruptions. Clark Air Base, 10 miles from the volcano, is useless. Subic Bay Naval Station, 35 miles from it, is covered in ash, its normal electricity out. Some hundred buildings at the two bases are wrecked. Filipinos cannot learn from U.S. authorities whether to be worried about nuclear or other damage because whatever is there is shrouded in military secrecy as well as white powdery ash.

Officially, the U.S. and the Philippines insist that their base lease renegotiation is not suspended. Unofficially, it is on hold. The U.S. had offered $360 million to keep the bases another 10 years, while the Philippines wanted more for a shorter period, but now neither side knows how much would have to rebuilt, taking how long, which is crucial to judging the worth of each base.

Clark, once one of the largest U.S. bases overseas, lost its last U.S. air wing to redeployment before the eruptions. It is still valuable for refueling and supply, and training of friendly air forces. But probably few of the 4,500 uniformed personnel withdrawn from the 7,000 there would ever go back. All U.S. military dependents in the country and nonessential workers at Subic Bay, some 20,000, are also withdrawn, but 7,000 sailors remain. Subic Bay's deep harbor is the principal supply, storage and repair base for the 180 ships of the Pacific Fleet, which for the moment must be regarded as tactically hamstrung.

It may well be that Washington, in future calm reflection of military, budget and diplomatic needs, is going to be prepared to pay dearly for continued rights to Subic but not Clark. The bargaining relationship will change and the Philippines, previously playing hard to get, might find its economic interest is in keeping the Yanks if it needs to grant the bases free. Of the 600,000 Filipinos made jobless by Mount Pinatubo, more than one-tenth worked at the two paralyzed bases.

After the immediate food, water and public health emergency -- in which the U.S. is helping all it can -- the fragile Philippines faces an economic catastrophe. One of the first needs is to turn the ubiquitous ash -- drifting in the winds as far as Vietnam -- from a suffocation into a cash crop for building blocks, ceramics, abrasives, fertilizers and other uses. Spanish conquerors in the Philippines three centuries ago used volcanic ash to build churches which still stand.

The one thing that Washington and Manila ought to agree upon immediately is that the Sept. 30 expiration of the current agreement is no longer a deadline. Consider it postponed by an Act of God. Only Mount Pinatubo can say when the time has come to assess damage and start over. Mount Pinatubo is still saying other things.

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