End of an Era in the Philippines
ON July 1, the United States will turn over to the Philippines Camp John Hay, the largest US military recreational area in the islands. To the countless servicemen who have enjoyed Camp Hay's mountain air, its pine trees, and its golf course, this will be a moment for nostalgia. To the 500 Filipino employees likely to be dismissed, it will be a day of regret. Yet it marks the inevitable beginning of the end of nearly a century of US military presence in that country. With the suspension this month of US-Philippine talks on the main bases of Subic Bay and Clark Field, this turnover is likely to be the first of several. The original base agreement, signed in 1947, was shortened to 25 years in 1966 and, depending on a Philippine or US interpretation, is up for renewal or expiration in 1991 or 1992. The government of Corazon Aquino, acceding to strong nationalist sentiment, insists that the old agreement, dating from a colonial period, cannot be renewed and that any new
agreement must be a treaty, subject to ratification by the Philippine Senate.
The bases are still valuable to the US. The repair facilities at Subic Bay provide the US Navy with not only a forward location, but also low costs for skilled labor. The two bases assist the US in force projection into the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. But the end of the cold war and the reduction of the Soviet naval presence in the Pacific have, particularly for those in the US Congress, reduced the rationale for maintaining such facilities, especially if the demands of the Filipinos for compensation a
re to be high.
Fundamental differences on the question of compensation have long existed between the two governments. The US has insisted that the bases represent a common effort of the two countries in the interests of Philippine and regional security. The base agreements were paralleled by a Mutual Defense Treaty. On the premise of mutual interest, both Congress and US administrations have resisted the payment of "rent."
The Filipinos see the bases as primarily benefiting the US. To them, the Mutual Defense Treaty was too conditional to meet Philippine defense needs. The island republic's leaders insisted that substantial economic and military aid was necessary, both to meet the country's needs and to justify the sacrifice of sovereignty implied by the existence of the foreign bases.
Each time the base agreements came up for renegotiation, the question of compensation was central. US arguments that the bases bolstered the Philippine economy were never persuasive with Philippine leaders. Today, with the Philippine government insisting on three quarters of a billion dollars in annual US assistance, the negotiations for the future have again foundered on this issue.
The contrast between the relative wealth of the base complexes and the far poorer villages on the outskirts was a constant source of tension as well. The theft of base property was a continuing problem, and the arrest by US service personnel of Filipinos caught smuggling property was exploited by island political leaders opposed to the bases.
The hope always exists when such facilities close that the property can be used to benefit the local economy. Perhaps, for the larger installations, this will be possible. But it will not be easy.
The Washington Post reported on May 9, "When the US Navy turned over a small communications base at Capas in Tarlac Province on Jan. 31, it was immediately besieged by hundreds of looters. They quickly tore down and carted off 10 miles of fencing, dug up buried electrical cables and water pipes, stole water and gasoline pumps, and even made off with manhole covers."
The likelihood is that the US-Philippine negotiations will resume and that agreement will be reached for an orderly phase-out of Subic Bay and Clark Field over a period of years. The reduced US need and what Washington considers excessive Philippine demands will make this a certainty.
An era will end; despite the benefits to both countries, the bases have been part of a colonial and strategic past no longer sustainable.