A renewed lease for American military bases in the Philippines ties the United States ever closer to the Marcos regime in this unsettled Asian nation. The new agreement, while costing the US Treasury $400 million more than the previous five-year pact, maintains a strategic position for American defense against new Soviet strength in the Asia-Pacific region.
In the eyes of many Filipino opposition leaders, however, the pact further strengthens the hand of President Ferdinand Marcos, who officially ended nine years of martial law in 1981 but has kept a tight rein on his outspoken critics. If Marcos should leave the scene, the US and its bases could be vulnerable to a political backlash, many observers say.
A small number of Filipinos criticize the bases because they might make the Philippines a ''target'' for Soviet nuclear missiles. Despite the economic boost to a sagging Philippine economy, the bases also come under attack for the occasional misconduct of American servicemen off the bases and for alleged mistreatment of Filipinos.
While the Philippine government perceives itself to have got the best deal from the revised agreement, the US seems to have also obtained a very good deal.
The pact, signed on Wednesday in Manila, states that with prior consultation with the Philippine government, the US can conduct ''unhampered'' military operations involving its forces at the Philippine bases.
The Philippines will get $900 million from the US during the next five years as compensation for the continued use of Subic Bay naval base and Clark air base and for three smaller communications stations. The first US-Philippines base agreement was signed in 1947, and has been renewed every five years. At the signing, President Marcos said that the terms of the new agreement provide the best deal that the Philippines has obtained since the 1947 pact.
Like the $500 million package for 1979-1984, the new deal is broken down into three parts. The US promised $475 million in economic support, $300 million in foreign military sales credit, and $125 million in direct military grants.
One of the major concessions obtained by the Philippines from the new agreement is easier credit for the military sales, which has been increased by $ 50 million.
Marcos said that the previous military sales credits were hardly touched because the government found the terms to be unreasonably steep. ''We found that some commercial credits offered better terms, such as those from some French companies who offered cheaper rates for their weapons. They were even prepared to get Philippine coconut oil in exchange,'' Marcos said. However, the Philippines could not take advantage of cheaper terms from other countries because of the need to maintain compatibility in the country's weapons.
US Ambassador Michael Armacost said only one-third of the previous package's sales credits of $250 million have been used by the Philippines. Although the Filipino negotiating panel expects that the US may insist that the unused portion of the old package be used up before tapping the more attractive terms of the new package, Marcos said that the Philippines ''can escape'' this. However, further discussions have to be held.
The additional sales credits and direct grants will enable Marcos to continue building up the Philippine military and strengthen its campaign against communist rebels.
Another concession received by the Philippines is the economic support fund which has been raised substantially from $200 million to $475 million. But what is remarkable is that the Philippines will have greater leeway in deciding where to spend half of the total amount. For specific projects, the US Agency for International Development (AID) will approve specific development projects. But for general programs with a package of related projects, the Philippine government will have increased authority.
The economic support fund and the manner of its appropriation was one of the thorny issues that prolonged the negotiations, which started April 11. Under the old compensation package, AID had required feasibility studies for each individual project before funds were disbursed. According to a member of the Philippine negotiating panel, this process was too tedious. And this is one of the reasons why until now, only half of the $200 million economic fund available under the previous package has been used.
The Philippines, however, expects to use the full amount by September this year when the 1979-1989 agreement ends.