The palm-lined boulevard on Manila Bay, the capital city's main showcase, has been spruced up with red and blue banners festooned on lampposts, flower boxes replanted, and welcome arches erected for the inauguration today of President Ferdinand Marcos.
The official guest list includes some two dozen foreign dignitaries, led by US Vice- President George Bush, President Reagan's personal representative.
Mr. Bush, officially billeted at the Malacanang Palace guesthouse, arrived in Manila June 29 and is expected to have talks with Marcos during a private lunch after the inauguration ceremonies. He will visit the two United States military bases in the Philippines on Tuesday.
The Bush visit, following that of US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. , underscores the return of "special relations" between Manila and Washington.
It is no mere coincidence that two high- ranking American officials would honor the Marcos government with a visit at such a close interval. Marcos's inauguration provides a fitting occasion to reestablish relations between the two traditional allies.
For Marcos, the signals are clear about the Reagan administration's open support for his regime.On the other hand, the US government openly showed its preference for Marcos in repudiation of the moderate and radical opposition in the country.
But beyond the gestures of open support may be a deeper motive on the part of the US government. The whole show is part of the Reagan administration's diplomatic offensive in Asia, and Marcos has been a convenient tool for attaining such foreign policy goals.
The reason the US government cannot afford to antagonize Marcos has been its recognition of the strategic importance of the two US bases in the Philippines.
The two American bases are the largest outside the continental US. The naval base in Subic, 50 miles northwest of Manila, services the Seventh Fleet. It is believed to have atom-bomb-proof submarine pens dug into the Zambales Mountains for Polaris submarines. It is reportedly the biggest submarine base in the region.
Clark Air Base (60 miles north of Manila) is the home of the 13th US Air Force. It has three major runways that can accommodate an entire wing plus additional bombers and store 20 million gallons of fuel.
The two bases employ a total of 43,000 Filipino laborers and 26,500 American personnel, and generate some $150 million to $200 million annual revenue to the Philippine economy.
As a recent American study pointed out, the US cannot effectively play its China card without the two American bases in the Philippines. It could not support China, or even Thailand, in case of an attack. Japan, which is the biggest US trading partner and ally in the Pacific, could have its vital sea lanes threatened. To maintain its presence in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf for its Middle East posture, the US needs the Clark Air Base for its Rapid Deployment Forces.
US Marines deployed in the Gulf train in Subic Navy Base first. The communications center at San Miguel Station is said to control the movements of the US Polaris submarines in the Indian Ocean and up to the Gulf. Hence as a global power, the US cannot do away with the two military bases here.
Within this context, Washington has to play ball with Marcos to ensure its long- term military and economic interests.
According to sources, Bush may want reassurances from Marcos that the military bases agreement, up for review in 1984, will find no major hitches from the government. It is also possible, said some administration people, that the American officials are laying the groundwork for the extension of the agreement when it expires in 1991.
Meanwhile, the political situation is becoming more polarized between Marcos and the radicalized sectors of society. There seems very little chance for peaceful means to achieve democratic changes. Marcos's powerful position could be further enchanced by the Reagan administration support, not to mention additional military and economic aid, but critics conten d that the US is merely postponing the inevitable.