THE assassination of United States Army Col. James Rowe in Manila set off alarm bells in Washington and at least briefly put the Philippines back onto the foreign policy agenda here. Other US and foreign personnel may also be targeted by the communist New People's Army (NPA) in an effort to discredit the government of President Corazon Aquino and scare away needed investment.
Romulo Kintanar, chief of staff of the NPA, told Reuters Sunday the April 21 killing of Colonel Rowe in a Manila ambush was ``only a beginning of a series of moves intended to stop American officials from freely intervening in the affairs of the country.''
The killing, however, has not called into question the short-term stability of the Aquino government, say a range of US sources that keep an eye on events in the former US colony.
Nor will the threat shake US commitment to aid Philippine democracy, says Rep. Stephen Solarz (D) of New York, who is championing a special provision of $200 million this year toward a multilateral-aid initiative for the Philippines. A short-term effect of the attack will probably be to draw the two governments closer together, a US diplomat says.
But the incident served to re-emphasize for US policymakers the serious long-term problems the Philippines faces: a well-ensconced communist insurgency; widespread poverty; and what many here describe as bureaucratic ineptitude in government.
The near-term trend in the Philippines is positive, say most of the US officials, congressional aides, and private specialists questioned. ``Cory'' Aquino remains deeply popular at home and US-Philippine relations are steady after last year's successful negotiations of US military-base rights through 1991, they say.
``The political picture is fairly stable,'' especially compared to the coups and coup scares through 1987, says a US official with long experience on the Philippines. ``The insurgency has been checked and even put on the run a little. This may even be the reason for the assassination as the communists try to regain the initiative by getting rough.''
``The economy is growing at 6 percent a year with inflation under 10 percent and Aquino has restored a legitimate democratic framework,'' he adds. ``None of us working the problem three or four years ago would have predicted this good of a transition from Marcos's rule.''
But this official and other US specialists quickly add that much remains to be done.
Roger Fisher, who watches the Philippines from the Heritage Foundation, says many in Washington agree that the Philippine economy is still ``too self-impaired'' with too many favors and monopolies built in and with an ``overbearing central bureaucracy'' hampering local initiative.
The Philippines is also not attracting as much foreign investment as it needs, despite the short-term pluses, says David Rosenberg of Middlebury College. More dangerously, the momentum for economic and social reform that marked the beginning of Aquino's rule has slowed. The traditional oligarchical families have returned to power, largely through elections, Professor Rosenberg says. This has blunted land reform and other moves to change gross inequities of wealth and power that characterize Philippine society.
This, he warns, is a recipe for instability that could leave the US very vulnerable. ``For the US to keep its military bases in the Philippines without basic economic reforms is the worst possible situation for us. The US becomes a natural target'' for a disgruntled population, Rosenberg says.
The Heritage Foundation's Mr. Fisher says the communist insurgency is not growing ``hand over fist'' as it did in from 1984 to '85, and its public image has plummeted in many areas. But the insurgency is growing, Fisher says, and still retains control over about 20 percent of the countryside it held in 1985. ``While the government response has improved substantially,'' he says, this is ``largely the result of local commanders reaching out to their civilian communities.''
Richard Kessler, author of a soon-to-be-published book, ``Repression and Rebellion in the Philippines,'' says that for some time analysts following the NPA have seen evidence of internal debate about whether to start targeting US personnel in an effort to scare away foreign investment, make the government look bad, and perhaps exacerbate remaining divisions in the military.
The attack on Rowe could signal a turn in that debate, Kessler says. The Philippine government has not been particularly effective in tracking down and holding those responsible for earlier assassinations, analysts add.
To help meet the economic and communist threats, the Bush administration is seeking $481 million in economic and military aid for the Philippines this year, plus $200 million as the US contribution to the first year of a multilateral assistance initiative for that country. While the recommendations have strong congressional support, one key legislator has suggested halving the $200 million grant for budgetary reasons. Others are talking about amendments to ensure aid is well used.
Fisher says the big change in Washington's approach to the Philippines is that, while Aquino retains deep sympathy, she ``is no longer seen as the saint she used to be.'' The US is now ``willing to offer tough but well-meaning advice,'' he says.
While there is agreement that the Philippines needs more aid, says Paul Kriesberg of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Filipinos have to come up with a viable implementation plan to convince US legislators and other potential donors that they can effectively establish projects and carry them out. Fisher points to a Philippine backlog of about $3.5 billion in undisbursed foreign aid, which many see as largely due to ineptitude in the Philippine bureaucracy.
The other big item that will come up again is renegotiation of the treaty permitting two gigantic US bases, which expires in 1991. The US official says the negotiations will be particularly tough, and there will be sharp debate inside the Philippines on whether to retain the bases. But he suggests that as of now, there is a good chance for a successful renewal agreement. He adds that the US should actively examine alternatives, just in case.
A congressional aide says that several important senators have already indicated it will be politically hard to sustain US support for the multilateral aid effort if the base negotiations go poorly.
``The next two years are going to require greater sustained attention by the administration than we've had of late,'' says a US specialist on the Philippines who requested anonymity. ``Both we and the Filipinos need to get out of our old rhetoric and talk frankly about why we are important to each other.''