US bases, Part II: bigger battle lies ahead with Philippines. US uneasy about 1991 sequel to latest payment deal

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

United States officials are eager to pick up where they left off in negotiations with President Corazon Aquino over strategic military bases in the Philippines. A pact signed last week between the two allies only adjusted a 1947 bases treaty that either side may end in 1991.

Although three years away, a decision on whether to remove US air and naval forces from their last foothold in Southeast Asia is expected to take an anguishing long time in the new and boisterous democracy under President Aquino.

``The question is,'' says one Western diplomat in Manila, ``who's the pressure on'' to seek new talks? The US wants to build on the momentum of the recent agreement, reached after six sometimes bitter months of public posturing on both sides. The pact calls for the US to give $962 million in ``hard'' money for the remaining two years of the treaty, plus a mix of ``soft'' benefits on trade, investment, and debt relief.

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The compensation far exceeds that given to former President Ferdinand Marcos, who first received payment for the bases in 1979. But it reflects US support for Mrs. Aquino and her restored democracy, as also seen in the indictments last week of Mr. Marcos and his wife on fraud and racketeering charges. The indictments help relieve pressure on Aquino to allow Marcos to return home to face pending criminal charges.

The higher payment also reveals US uneasiness over a growing anti-base sentiment among Filipinos, despite a majority who say they want the bases to stay, according to most polls. Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base serve as pivotal posts for projecting US military power from Iran to Tahiti. They are also the second-largest employer for the economically strapped Philippines.

Aquino has publicly kept her options open on the hotly debated issue, but that stance will be difficult to maintain by the end of next year, a number of Manila-based diplomats say.

Negotiating a new treaty could take well over a year, they say, given the six months needed just to amend the present treaty. The startup of any fresh talks would first have to await the settling in of a new US administration. Then, if Aquino decides to hammer out a new treaty, the Philippines Senate could take six months or more to ratify it.

After that, a nationwide referendum is expected to be called by the Philippines Congress. Such a costly exercise can take months to organize in this archipelago nation.

Under the present treaty, either country can terminate the pact only after Sept. 16, 1991, and must give one year's notice. Thus, the earliest exit for the US military would be Sept. 16, 1992, or half a year after Aquino finishes her six-year term. But that scenario is complicated by the new Philippines Constitution which calls for the bases treaty to end in 1991 - period. The US, wishing to avoid a big argument, may accept that deadline instead of trying to iron out the contradiction.

The US, to prevent the bases from being entangled in the Philippines' 1991-92 presidential campaign and eager to appeal to Aquino's pro-US sentiments, wants an early commitment from her on a new treaty.

At the same time, Aquino faces pressure from friendly neighbors, including Japan, to give early support to the bases. She also needs to calm potential foreign investors who fear instability without the US.

During the just-concluded talks, the US appeared to weigh seriously alternative basing sites. That implied threat may have helped pushed the final deal. Equally effective was US reluctance to take up its own offer of organizing a multi-nation, multi-billion-dollar aid effort for the Philippines if the bases were threatened.

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