US Military Strategy in Southeast Asia

THE future of US military bases in the Philippines is uncertain. The treaty governing the bases expires in 1991. Although exploratory talks are scheduled to start on a new treaty this December, any agreement extending the bases must be ratified by two-thirds of the 24-member Philippine Senate. And recently, 12 senators called for the closure of the bases when this treaty expires. Although there has been long-standing opposition to the bases on nationalistic grounds, it is unclear whether this new opposition from the Senate represents posturing - in order to acquire a more favorable economic and military assistance package from the United States - or genuine hostility.

If it is the former, it follows Singapore's recent proposal to host some US naval and air facilities currently based in the Philippines. Singapore, a hard-line anti-communist state, fears Chinese and Soviet military and political influence in Southeast Asia, and the vacuum that would be created if the US unilaterally withdrew from the Philippines.

The initiative, which offers a limited alternative to the Philippine basing strategy, somewhat diminishes Manila's position at the negotiation table. Seen in this light, the recent Philippine opposition may well be an attempt to pressure the US into offering a handsome aid package.

But if hostility to the bases is genuine, new treaty extensions are unlikely. The bases may remain beyond 1991 because the current treaty requires either Manila or Washington to give a year's notice of termination. However, without a new treaty, maintenance of these bases will certainly strain US policy; the installations will be subject to uncertainties of Philippine law and politics, including the 1992 Philippine presidential election.

The Philippine Constitution specifically forbids ``foreign military bases'' beyond 1991 without a duly ratified treaty. Thus, there is a conflict between the Constitution and the preexisting treaty. This will likely be resolved by the Philippine judiciary, which may rule against US interests.

The US should consider Singapore's offer. But because of space limitations, it can provide only a fraction of what is currently provided in the Philippines.

More importantly, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has a reputation of intolerance for political dissent. This does not suggest that Mr. Lee is corrupt, or as unpopular as Ferdinand Marcos - the Philippines's thoroughly discredited former dictator. Rather, it means that the US should be cautious when placing its bases and displaying its power in Singapore.

The one positive element stemming from the uncertainty regarding the future of the bases is that the US must now reconsider its strategic objectives in the region. Since the Soviets acquired military bases in Vietnam, a major rationale for maintaining the Philippine bases has been to counter the Soviet threat. However, the Soviets now stress the reduction of superpower tension. It is no secret that maintaining bases in Vietnam has been a drain on the Soviet economy. And the Soviets are willing to negotiate a bilateral withdrawal from Vietnam and the Philippines.

The US has responsed unenthusiastically to the Soviet suggestion, however, because Soviet bases in Vietnam do not compare with US facilities in the Philippines. Further, the Soviets do not have to contend with the Philippines's rejuvenated democracy - one sign of which is Senate opposition to its most powerful ally.

The senate opposition may prevail, which is precisely why talks with the Soviets regarding a mutual withdrawal from the region should at least be considered. If the US is forced to unilaterally withdraw from the Philippines, the Soviet offer, now casually dismissed, will look infinitely better in retrospect.

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