`Gathering storm' in the Philippines. US looks for a way to protect vital interests in the region

With time running out on the government of Ferdinand Marcos, Congress is taking a hard look at United States foreign policy in the Philippines. In hearings yesterday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, critics of the Reagan administration warned of a ``gathering storm'' they say threatens key US security interests in the Pacific. They say the administration isn't doing enough to force the basic political, economic, and military reforms necessary to save the faltering Marcos regime and thereby protect US interests.

Administration officials insist that they are also worried about the threat posed by the fast-growing Philippine communist insurgency. But they say the only option is to stick with the current US policy of financial aid to the government of President Marcos, combined with quiet pressures for reform.

Progress is ``halting, uneven, and painfully slow,'' admits Paul Wolfowitz, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. But Mr. Wolfowitz says quick and dramatic action by the Marcos government could still salvage a deteriorating situation.

What Congress and the Reagan administration both fear is the possibility that the Philippines could become another Iran. If that happens, the US would suffer one of the most crucial strategic setbacks of the postwar era.

Right now, the battleground for US policy in the Philippines is the issue of appropriate levels of US security assistance to the Philippine government.

Earlier this year, Congress cut by nearly a third the Reagan administration's 1986 military aid request for the Manila government. There are now moves in both the House and Senate to cut the aid request even further as the foreign aid bill moves through the appropriations cycle.

Meanwhile, a Senate subcommittee yesterday approved $104 million for improvements at two US military bases in the Philippines. The funds are the first installment of a seven-year, $1.3 billion program to upgrade Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base, which are vital strategic installations in Asia.

Administration critics say the only way to stave off the insurgency and to preserve strategic interests in the Philippines is to tie future aid to the achievement of tangible reforms. Critics also say the time has come to force a swift transfer of power from Marcos to a government that includes opposition representatives who are nonetheless pro-American.

``Every day that Marcos continues to monopolize all the levers of power brings closer the day communists will rule in Manila,'' says Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California. ``The best friend the communists have in the Philippines today is Ferdinand Marcos.''

Privately, many administration officials admit to dissatisfaction with the slow pace of reform under the Marcos government. But in testimony yesterday, administration witnesses cited what they described as ``tragic flaws'' in the logic that security assistance should be terminated until there is evidence of substantial progress toward reform in the Philippines.

Without US support, says Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Armitage, the Philippine Army -- which is already ``flailing about in an agony of shortages'' -- will be unable to fight communism and make needed reforms at the same time. Mr. Armitage says US security assistance has not only helped improve the operational readiness of the Philippine armed forces, but has also funded new agencies, including a network of ``special action committees'' to monitor compliance of the forces with more stringent huma n rights standards.

``The reform that has begun within the Philippine military deserves to be encouraged,'' says Wolfowitz, who adds that the benefactors of a policy of ``starving the military'' will not be ``Marcos's democratic opposition, but only the NPA.''

Wolfowitz also noted in testimony yesterday that US policy has helped produce other reforms, including greater freedom of the press, last year's parliamentary elections, and an independent investigation into the 1983 murder of Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino.

But administration officials acknowledge that saving the Philippines will be an uphill struggle.

Armitage contradicted recent optimistic assessments by Marcos, saying the ``trend lines'' pointing toward a possible communist triumph in the Philippines ``continue to point in the wrong direction.''

Armitage repeated earlier assessments that if present trends continue, the Philippines could be headed for a ``strategic stalemate'' within three to five years.

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