MANILA — THE political battle over United States bases in the Philippines is heating up against the background of the Gulf crisis. Negotiations are scheduled for next month on the future of US military facilities here, which are the largest and oldest overseas and constitute the strategic center of US defenses in Asia.
In preliminary discussions earlier this year, the controversial US presence was discussed in the wake of reduced superpower tensions and US plans to lower its military profile.
Today, the face-off in the Persian Gulf has made Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base key staging areas in a potential Middle East conflict.
The threat of war will strengthen the Philippines' hand, officials on both sides say. But it also could deepen opposition to a continued US presence, a divisive issue which has brought relations between the US and the Philippines to a crossroads.
``Everyone thought that the cold war was over, but it's only in remission,'' says a Philippine official. ``They will have to rethink their defense cuts. The US is the only superpower of note, the only policeman that the world can turn to.''
Although US security concerns and Philippine nationalism have long been at odds, recent talks on retaining the bases - and keeping 16,000 US servicemen in the Philippines - have been particularly sensitive and politically tumultuous. The current accord expires in September 1991.
The bases issue has galvanized Philippine resentment against longstanding US economic and political influence. About 70,000 Filipinos derive their jobs either directly or indirectly from the bases, which have a strong ripple effect on the economy.
That bitterness has fueled a wave of attacks on Americans by communist insurgents of the New People's Army, which wants to force the facilities out.
In Manila, public opinion is running 2 to 1 against keeping the facilities under the current arrangement, according to Social Weather Stations, an independent public-opinion research firm.
Outside the capital, pro-base sentiment predominates, although researchers contend many rural people are not aware of the issues.
``A good number of people have nationalist feelings that the bases must go immediately,'' says Felipe Miranda, a political scientist and pollster.
That has put pressure on President Corazon Aquino, who has had to cope with a rising tide of Philippine nationalism. Although the bases are under US control, recent tensions with Iraq prompted Mrs. Aquino to assert that the bases would not be used for an attack without the approval of the Philippine government.
Aquino also will face a stiff task winning approval for an accord in the hostile Philippine Senate, which must ratify it by a two-thirds majority.
``We should complete the process done decades ago and remove foreign forces from here. We will never grow up and get out of our political adolescence,'' says Rene Saguisag, a senator and bases critic. ``If those bases are used in the Middle East [conflict], we could be drawn into something we don't want.''
Political observers say it's not a question of if the bases will leave, but when. Influential Defense Minister Fidel Ramos favors a phased pullout, and observers expect negotiations to focus on a timetable.
US officials caution that a total withdrawal could come next year if the talks become stalemated. The US is pursuing security arrangements with other Southeast Asian countries concerned about a reduced US presence. It is currently talking to Singapore and Brunei.
The US wants to stretch out its stay as long as possible, however, especially since the Persian Gulf confrontation has left security considerations in flux, observers say.
``No one really thinks the bases are here for perpetuity,'' says a Western diplomat. ``It would be best to have flexibility until it's clear what is happening in the region and elsewhere.''
``The Philippines position will be to wait to see what the US wants,'' says an Aquino aide. ``But there are soundings and some talk from certain influential people of a proposed phaseout over a five- to 10-year period.''
Some analysts predict both sides will overcome opposition to a continued short-term US presence by wrapping the bases agreement into a broader treaty. The agreement would include generous assistance to upgrade the ragtag Philippine military and address other problems.
Ultimately, though, the issue will come down to money, observers say. Many observers expect Manila to ask for $1 billion a year, compared to the $360 million paid last year for hosting the installations.