End of an Era in US-Philippine Relations

IN late September, the United States withdrew from the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines. In November, the last US forces in the islands will leave a smaller facility near Manila.

Remarkably, in the US, the closing of Subic Bay, once the largest American base abroad, went virtually without notice. Television coverage was scant; even major newspapers marked the departure with short articles and pictures. There was no editorial comment, either of regret or resignation.

Undoubtedly, the lack of attention was due in part to the preoccupation with the election campaign, but it stemmed also from a general public belief that the cold war had removed the principal rationale for such bases; the Philippines was now less important.

For Filipinos, these events mark the end of the colonial era. Although, undoubtedly, many affected by the closures regretted the departure, significant portions of the country's political elite did not consider independence complete as long as the US bases remained.

Throughout the post-World War II period, for official Washington, at least, the bases have been the most important aspect of the US-Philippine relationship. Filipinos have resented this emphasis, and many Americans, also, have regretted that other aspects of the friendship have not been given greater weight. It would be equally regrettable now if the US lost interest in the former colony, either because of a lack of recognition of common interests or out of resentment that "they threw us out."

Common interests remain, even in the military realm. A Mutual Defense Treaty remains in effect. Although differences of interpretation have existed between the two countries over the mutual obligations, it nevertheless commits the US to a continuing interest in the security of the Philippines.

Given the opposition to the presence of the bases and the changing world situation, a US withdrawal was ultimately inevitable. Although President Fidel Ramos favored the retention of the facilities for some years more, he is not likely to reverse the departure. He is, however, reportedly willing to discuss the servicing of US ships and, possibly, the use of air-target ranges in the country; the possibilities of military cooperation have not ended.

The US remains the Philippines' largest trading partner; the US is the largest foreign investor. Beyond military and economic interests, the foundations of the relationship are more nebulous - but, nevertheless - important. The US influence on the Philippine educational system was profound; in developing skills and establishing English as a common language, it gave Filipinos qualifications that provided opportunities for them throughout the world.

Philippine emigration to the US has created family links that will bind the two nations for generations to come. The seeds of democracy planted by the US have sprouted again; given help in overcoming the deep economic problems of the country, Philippine democracy could be firmly reestablished as a model in Asia.

Inevitably, however, the Philippines will move away from their American identification and seek a more independent, more Asian character. Pilipina, the Tagalog-based national language, will ultimately replace English as the official and educational language. Japan will probably overtake the US as the leading trading partner and investor. The government in Manila may be less receptive to requests to support US global policies.

Americans should neither regret these developments nor make them the reason for reduced interest.

For nearly half a century, the largest share of US foreign assistance has gone to countries cooperating in global security, including the provision of military bases. Although humanitarian and altruistic motives were present, the security rationale was the one most acceptable to Congress.

In the Philippines, as in many other countries, that basis led to unreasonable expectations and tensions on both sides. That period has now ended, but as long as the US remains a power with global interests, the premises must be found for sustained relations beyond those founded on military cooperation. That possibility exists with the many long-established links with the Philippines.

Philippine democracy will continue to need support and encouragement. The island's economy must be strengthened to insure opportunities for trade and investment. Family and cultural links will remain strong. The bases may now be closed but, for a long time to come, the Philippines will not be - and should not be - for the US "just another country."

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