Mount Pinatubo solved problems for the United States and the Philippines. Its destructive power forced the U.S. base lease negotiations into a compromise for a continued but reduced American military presence, which reflects the interests of both countries.
The U.S. is leaving Clark Air Base in September 1992, 91 years after its original use as a cavalry post in the U.S. conquest. Clark became the prototype of the overseas American base, an enclave of Americana and high technology in exotic climes. But with the changes in aerial technology and endurance, the transformation of U.S. strategic responsibilities, the deficit crisis and the existence of bases on Guam and Okinawa and bombing ranges in the continental U.S., Clark was getting less important. With strident Filipino nationalists demanding it back, Clark was not worth to the U.S. what the Aquino government demanded to be paid.
The U.S. is in effect calling the Filipino bluff with regard to Clark. Thousands of Filipinos who work there and their dependents will pay the price. But the destruction of its buildings by the volcano ten miles away and its blanket of volcanic ash at least doubled the price of retaining it as a base. Clark is just not worth it.
Subic Bay Naval Station, with its great ship repair yard, deep harbor and world's greatest naval supply depot, is something else. If the U.S. 7th Fleet is to continue to play a role in stabilizing the Pacific Rim, it needs Subic Bay or something like it. There is no doubt that all of the emerging industrial powers of that region want this protection just offshore, even if they do not currently see either a Soviet or a Chinese threat.
In reaching agreement before expiration of the existing lease on Sept. 16, the U.S. is taking budgetary chances. It is paying a lot -- $550 million for 1992 and $453 million annually for the rest of a ten-year lease -- for a naval base that has continued to operate but incurred heavy damage from the volcano 25 miles away. Mount Pinatubo's eruptions are not over and the U.S. cannot accurately estimate the price of removing ash and restoring facilities, which must be added to the rent as the true cost of retaining the base.
The base agreement must pass scrutiny of the U.S. Senate and the Philippines Senate. But it has probably restored the uneasy relationship between the struggling democratic regime of President Corazon Aquino and the Bush administration, and should help her see out her term. All Asia will be breathing easier at the compromise that was reached.