Raul Manglapus: man of the hour for Manila

FOR once, the news from Manila is good. The government of President Corazon Aquino - beset by a rebellious military, communist insurgency, and bureaucratic corruption and incompetence - has taken an important step toward solving some of these problems: It recently announced the appointment of Sen. Raul Manglapus to the post of foreign affairs secretary. Mr. Manglapus has had a long and distinguished public career, and has held key positions, including an earlier assignment as undersecretary of foreign affairs. He will replace Vice-President Salvador Laurel, who recently resigned from the department. Mr. Laurel has never hidden his presidential ambition.

Manglapus's move to a key executive post has been long overdue, and underscores a valid criticism of Mrs. Aquino's leadership. When she assumed power in 1986, Aquino lacked experience and compounded her weakness by naming unqualified candidates to advisory and Cabinet positions.

Candidates were too often chosen on the basis of friendship rather than competence, and, in the process of selection, the Philippines' ``best and brightest,'' of which Manglapus is a charter member, were ignored. The results were predictable: the government's failure to halt a slide, started under former President Ferdinand Marcos, toward irreversible political polarization.

Manglapus's new access to the President will be welcome, and his counsel will go beyond his assigned realm of foreign affairs. For example, on the crucial issue of land reform - now being debated in the Philippine Congress - he has been the most vigorous and consistent champion of reform. Unlike most politicians, Manglapus clearly understands the relationship between meaningful change and the government's hopes to end the rural-based insurgency.

As positive as his input may be in other areas, however, it is to the task of managing foreign relations that he will likely leave his most lasting mark. For the Philippines, foreign affairs has primarily meant US-Philippine relations, and next year talks will start on a key component of that relationship: the future of US military bases in the Philippines. If no agreement is reached, the 1947 treaty governing the bases will expire in 1991.

The attitude of many Filipino leaders toward the bases is decidedly ambivalent. Aquino has consistently maintained that her options on the bases are ``open.'' Moreover, ratification of an agreement continuing the bases will require a two-thirds majority approval by the Philippine Senate and, at present, the prospects for ratification are not promising.

In August, 12 of the 24 senators cosponsored legislation banning nuclear weapons from Philippine territory. For the US, the consequences are both clear and ominous, particularly in light of recent developments in New Zealand, once regarded as a staunch United States ally. In New Zealand's case, its nuclear-free policy damaged relations with the US, while drastically reducing the level of bilateral cooperation on military matters.

To be sure, the Philippines has several valid reasons for keeping the bases beyond 1991. The bases are now an irreplaceable economic and military asset. The current five-year pact provides $900 million in economic and military aid, while the bases employ more than 53,000 Filipinos and pump $350 million annually into depressed local economies.

That said, negotiations will still be complicated by a residue of Filipino resentment toward the US for its past support of Marcos, as well as a growing sense of Filipino nationalism; both have helped fuel anti-bases sentiment within the Senate.

If an agreement on the bases is to be reached and ratified, Manglapus will be the key. As a persistent and persuasive critic of Mr. Marcos, he has nationalist credentials beyond question. Moreover, he is also highly regarded by his former Senate peers. Unlike many other nationalists, however, he is also a pragmatist on defense issues.

In a September interview in Manila, Manglapus saw neutralization as the region's ultimate goal, but conceded it was a ``long-range vision'' in light of the Soviet military presence in Vietnam and the corresponding US presence in the Philippines. He believes that an abrupt US military withdrawal will create a dangerous void, but he also understands the domestic problems caused by the US bases in the Philippines.

Although he sees the bases staying beyond 1991, the extension will not be permanent. Philippine-US relations, according to Manglapus, are in a state of transition, but change need not be disruptive. Such a transition, in contrast to the immediate removal of the bases after 1991, would provide all parties with an important commodity: time to develop satisfactory alternatives.

One possible alternative is to first gain the consensus of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on the need for the US bases and, eventually, a dispersal of the facilities throughout the region. Neutrality could eventually come into being, but not before careful US and ASEAN negotiations with the Soviets and, possibly, the Chinese.

Such an approach could satisfy the conflicting demands of Filipino nationalism and security. Anything less could produce what the US is trying hard to avoid: the unilateral removal of US military power from a new and dangerous arena of superpower competition.

Peter Bacho is a lawyer and teaches Philippine history at the University of Washington.

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