By Stephen Shalom
US and Philippine negotiators have announced a new military bases agreement under which the United States will withdraw from Clark Air Base by September 1992 but retain Subic Naval Base for at least 10 more years. Though Philippine nationalists have been struggling for decades to eject the United States from Clark, the new agreement represents a victory for the Pentagon. The pact, however, must still be ratified by the Philippine Senate, where it faces opposition.
The US secured rights to Clark, Subic and numerous other military bases in the newly independent Philippines in 1947. Among the military operations supported by the bases were covert attacks against Indonesia in 1958, the invasion of Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s and, most recently, the Gulf War.
Over the years, Washington has been forced to make concessions to rising Philippine nationalism, reducing the term of the bases agreement and introducing many cosmetic changes, such as permitting the flying of the Philippine flag over the facilities. But US military use of the bases has remained unhampered.
Because the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union has not reduced the US proclivity to intervene abroad, foreign bases remain valuable to the Pentagon. But the disappearance of the Soviet bogy, combined with the continuing growth of Philippine nationalism, has made it harder to sell the bases to Filipinos.
At the same time, the budget crisis in the US has forced cuts in military spending, and Defense Department officials have needed to pare costs for overseas bases just as they have for domestic facilities.
Given these realities, even before the eruption of Mount Pinatubo forced the evacuation of Clark, some US policy-makers had been floating the idea of giving up the facility while retaining the much more valuable Subic. Satellite communications and long-range aircraft had diminished Clark's value, and the fighter wing stationed there had been relocated to other Pacific bases in February.
US officials realised that getting rid of Clark would help mute nationalist protest. Moreover, giving up Clark could actually help tighten the US hold on Subic. Though Washington pretends that Filipinos favour the bases out of concern for mutual security, it is well aware that economic considerations — the jobs and money generated by the bases — are the only reason Filipinos are willing to accept the facilities. Anti-bases activists have urged the conversion of the bases for non-military purposes,
arguing that socially useful, productive work would benefit the Philippine people more than servicing US battleships or soldiers.
Manila declared it had detailed plans for shifting the bases to peaceful purposes, but the Aquino administration was not likely to carry through any serious conversions, even without the volcano. So when the US closes the air base, there will be massive economic dislocation in the surrounding community. That, in turn, will generate intense pressures to keep the US at Subic.
Before Mount Pinatubo spewed its ash into the air, US and Philippine bases negotiators had been deadlocked, not on matters of principle, but on the cost and duration of a new agreement. Washington was offering US$360 million a year for a 10- to 12-year lease, while the Philippines was demanding $825 million a year for seven years. There was much posturing on both sides, but they were said to be only $30 million apart by early June.
The really crucial issues were reportedly all resolved in favour of Washington. Nuclear weapons can be stored at the bases with Philippine government approval — in violation of the nuclear-free clause of the Philippine constitution. Nuclear weapons can be brought into port without Manila's knowledge.
And the Philippine government's consent would be required only for direct US military operations launched from the bases, something the bases have not been used for in three decades. This latter provision means that Subic could repeat its Vietnam and Persian Gulf support roles with Manila having no say in the matter.
Washington has meanwhile been able to argue that cleaning up Subic would not be worthwhile unless the lease were long enough. Accordingly, the new agreement runs for 10 years, with a provision that either a new agreement will be worked out extending the lease or it will begin turning the base over to the Philippine government at the end of the 10th year, with no date specified for completing the pullout.
In return for rights to Subic, the US will provide the Philippines with $203 million a year in "security assistance". Additionally, the US military will transfer about $150 million a year in excess military and medical supplies.
The chief beneficiaries of the agreement on the Philippine side will be the armed forces, which are conducting a counter-insurgency campaign against the left-wing New People's Army.
Under the terms of the Philippine constitution, two-thirds of the Senate must ratify any new bases treaty. In a July 30 straw vote, 16 of the 23 senators cast ballots against the bases pact.
If experience is any guide, the legislators will raise eloquent
objections to the new treaty, but ultimately vote to ratify. Anti-bases forces in the Philippines are organising to block the agreement, but they face an uphill battle.
[Abridged from the US Guardian.]