Philippines nears new accord to permit port calls by U.S. warships, joint efforts

Former nationalists help reverse course, 8 years after U.S. bases closed

April 13, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MANILA, Philippines -- Eight years after the Philippine Senate ordered the U.S. military out of the country, the Philippine government appears likely to ratify a new agreement with the United States for increased military cooperation.

Although a 1951 mutual defense pact has remained in effect, the forced closure of Clark Air Base, once the largest U.S. military facility outside the continental United States, and a naval base at Subic Bay led to strains in the Manila-Washington relationship that continue to this day. No U.S. military ships have called on the Philippines for two years.

Among the most active campaigners in the nationalistic movement to close the bases were two senators, Joseph Estrada and Orlando Mercado. Estrada is now president and Mercado is his secretary of defense, and their outspoken support for the new agreement is helping to overcome considerable opposition.

"I'm 100 percent behind the Visiting Forces Agreement," Estrada said in an interview. "It does not infringe on our sovereignty, and it enhances our security at a time when I'm worried that China wants to take over Asia."

The agreement is similar to ones the United States has with 78 countries, including four in Southeast Asia: Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. It permits port calls in the Philippines for U.S. ships and shore leaves for U.S. service personnel, and it will lead to joint training exercises and closer overall military cooperation. It contains no provisions for increased military aid or for deterring external threats.

Estrada, whose armed forces are among the weakest in the region, sees the VFA as providing increased stability and security. His comment about China underscores his concern over Beijing's presence in the Spratly Islands, 310 miles southwest of Manila in the strategic navigation routes linking the Indian and Pacific oceans.

China began building up a fortified military presence on the islands' Mischief Reef last year, and discussions between Beijing and Manila after the Philippines' protest have been unproductive.

"The wolf [China] is looking for new lambs to devour after Mischief Reef," Rep. Roilo Golez said. Six nations, including China and the Philippines, claim the Spratlys, in whole or part.

Independent polls show that a substantial majority of Filipinos supports the Visiting Forces Agreement, as do business leaders, who believe the deal would promote stability needed in a time of economic crisis. Estrada says he has enough Senate votes to ensure its passage next month.

Pub Date: 4/13/99

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