MANILA, Philippines -- Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado has called for a return of American troops to the Philippines, six years after the country's Senate closed down all U.S. bases in a wave of nationalist fervor.
Over the past year, legislators have been debating the wisdom of closing the bases in 1992 when their leases expired. Many felt a U.S. military presence in the Philippines was needed to deter Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.
The issue has become more pressing recently after Chinese warships and cargo vessels transporting building materials were spotted around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands. Manila says the reef is well within its maritime sovereignty; Beijing argues that the entire South China Sea is Chinese territory.
The Spratly Islands, northwest of northern Palawan, are a cluster of atolls, reefs and shoals believed to be rich in minerals. Five nations -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei -- claim part of the Spratlys. China claims all the islands.
"If there is no American presence, we all know who would come in. Isn't it already obvious?" Mercado said. "Before we know it, the Chinese could be in Palawan."
Mercado called on the Philippine Senate to ratify a visiting forces agreement with Washington, paving the way for joint military exercises and the presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines. Filipinos hope the Navy will come to their aid if the Chinese take over more islands.
Roman Catholic bishops in the Philippines oppose the agreement, arguing that the return of U.S. troops would increase prostitution and undermine the nation's morals.
Mercado told reporters that the Chinese task force around Mischief Reef "can only mean one thing -- that China will build barracks and add wharves and causeways in the future so their vessels can dock."
Reconnaissance reports, apparently from U.S. sources, indicated increased Chinese activity around Mischief Reef last month. Spotter planes in recent days have sighted a task force of six naval vessels and cargo ships loaded with construction equipment. China already has built modern shelters on the reef, but Beijing says they will house only fishermen.
The poorly equipped Philippine navy, which can barely muster a few old patrol boats, is no match for Chinese warships.
"We can only go and look. We don't have the capacity to do anything else," said a Philippine naval officer. "We don't have patrol boats good enough to scare the Chinese, let alone force them to leave."
Nonetheless, Philippine officials said yesterday that they will increase naval patrols in the area.
President Joseph Estrada called the planned action in Mischief Reef a "blockade," but his spokesman said the Philippine leader was referring to increased naval patrols.
"This is not in any way a military confrontation. This is to discourage particularly Chinese vessels, fishing vessels, from entering into that particular area," Philippine spokesman Jerry Barican said. He declined to give details.
For years, Southeast Asian countries have feared that Beijing would make good on its unilateral declaration in 1992 that China has sovereign rights over all of the South China Sea. Chinese gunboats, sometimes described as "survey vessels," have sailed into offshore exclusive zones, triggering protests from Tokyo, Taipei, Hanoi and Manila.
In the United States, Jim Przystup, a senior fellow at the National Defense University's Institute for National Security Studies, welcomed the Philippine debate over renewed U.S. presence there.
"It's important that we extend our access in that region, and establishing a presence in the Philippines would certainly do that," Przystup said.
He stressed that an American presence need not and should not mean military bases on Philippine soil, an issue of contention between the two countries.
"If we can maintain a presence without bases, that would meet our strategic needs," he said. "It's significant that a Philippines government official would state this publicly. A lot depends on what the terms and conditions of such a presence would be."
The 190 isles, reefs and shoals that make up the Spratlys are on strategic shipping lanes, particularly to and from Japan. Surveys say the Spratlys contain one of the world's largest natural gas reserves, commercial quantities of oil and rich marine life.
Pub Date: 11/12/98