New charter's impact on US bases

One provision in the proposed Philippine constitution has caught American officials off guard: the one calling for freedom from nuclear weapons on Filipino territory ``consistent with the national interest.'' If the provision is fully implemented, many American naval ships would be prevented from entering the United States' huge and ideally situated military base at Subic Bay, thus jeopardizing the US's strategic advantage in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

But the main sponsor of the resolution, lawyer Adolfo Azcuna, says the US has nothing to worry about.

``The qualifying phrase is `consistent with the national interest,' '' he says. ``This gives discretion to the [Philippine] President to pursue a nuclear-weapons-free policy. Departures from the policy must be justified by the President, then we can allow nuclear weapons. We didn't want a fixed rule. It all depends on the political will of the President,'' Mr. Azcuna adds.

Negotiations to renew the US-Philippine agreement for both Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base begin in 1988. The pact could be legally rejected by the Philippines anytime after 1991, or may be allowed to continue. President Corazon Aquino says she is keeping her options open.

In the mid-1970s, during the last talks on US bases, the US rejected Filipino demands to ban nuclear weapons. ``If the US rejects it again,'' Azcuna says, ``it is still possible to be flexible. The policy is less rigorous toward weapons in transit than toward weapons in storage.''

Just the same, any new pact must be treated as a treaty (not just an agreement) by both nations, according to the proposed constitution, and could be put before a plebiscite. That alone has some US officials worried about the bases becoming ``debate material.''

-- C. J.

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