Aquino Softens Stance on US Bases

THE last few months at this sprawling American base have been a letdown for Duane Slater. On alert and ready to go, the flight mechanic eventually spent the Gulf war on the sidelines. Now, as Clark Air Base starts to close down despite an uncertain future, Mr. Slater leaves with mixed feelings.

``We were ready to go to war,'' Slater said as jet fighters took off at the base 50 miles north of Manila. ``It was a pretty big upset when we couldn't.

``Now, a lot of people don't want to leave the Philippines,'' said the soldier, who is part of two fighter squadrons being transferred back to the United States. ``It used to be a nice place to be.''

After months of hard talk, the US and the Philippines are scrambling to stretch out the remaining years of America's largest overseas facilities. Philippine officials believe a new agreement could be reached this month.

The negotiating climate shifted after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, political observers say.

As the Philippines' oil-dependent economy struggled through the crisis, President Corazon Aquino softened resistance to a long phaseout of the US facilities, including Clark and the giant Subic Bay Naval Station, Western diplomats say.

For its part, the US, which has downplayed the significance of the bases, wants to hang on to its presence as long as possible, political observers say.

``Although there was no big role in the Middle East, there was some staging and refueling,'' says a regional diplomat, ``and Asia remains volatile.''

The bases issue has been a difficult test for the Philippines, a former American colony where more than half the 60 million people officially live in poverty.

Despite some demonstrations against the bases and attacks on US servicemen, opinion polls show more than half the general population favoring the facilities. The bases channel $1 billion a year into the economy through compensation, salaries of Filipino workers, and American spending. The lease expires in September.

Still, nationalism grips the legislature and universities. Intellectuals chafe at policies which they claim enforce dependence and hurt modernization.

Winning treaty ratification from two-thirds of the 23-member Philippine Senate will be an uphill struggle for Mrs. Aquino. An informal poll recently showed 14 senators against a new treaty.

Oscar Orbos, Aquino's prominent executive secretary, admits ratification will be a tough fight. However, Mr. Orbos is pushing for more flexibility on the bases. Aquino plans a popular referendum and a series of local meetings to mount pressure on the Senate to approve a treaty.

Philippine political observers say domestic consent for a new treaty pivots on Philippine patience and American generosity. While Aquino's government proposes a seven-year duration for the bases, the US wants to extend it to the turn of the century.

Manila has sought $825 million a year for the bases, while the US is offering a $360 million package with more aid available the longer the stay. The Philippines had hoped to use part of the compensation package to secure a bond issue to help retire its $30 billion debt. It dropped the plan after resistance from the US. This month both sides hope to finalize an agreement.

``There seems to be a better perception of the Philippines than before,'' says Amando Doronila, a Manila newspaper editor. ``The compensation as well as the phaseout must be seen by Filipinos as fulfilling their aspirations of sovereignty and giving economic help. If it's packaged properly, that will help the government in terms of getting approval.''

The bases also pique the interest of the powerful military, which hopes to modernize itself with compensation funds from the US. ``The Philippines doesn't have the knowledge or the expertise to run them [the bases],'' says a Western diplomat.

Recently, an American naval communications facility at Capas was ransacked by looters when US troops were withdrawing and Philippine troops were arriving. Philippine officials claimed the US left earlier; American officials said notice had been given.

The incident unsettled those at the US bases, who haven't given the Philippine military high marks. ``At one time, we were told that the Philippine Air Force would be out here with us,'' said Tony Hines, a flight mechanic. ``It scared us to death.''

Philippine officials say closer coordination is needed. ``It doesn't mean a lack of capability on the Philippine government side in managing and handling an American facility,'' says Defense Secretary Fidel Ramos.

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