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U.S. Bases Are Sore Points in Philippines

September 24, 1989|Charles William Maynes | Charles William Maynes is the editor of Foreign Policy

WASHINGTON — George Bush, facing dramatic change in Europe, also faces similar shifts in Asia's diplomatic landscape. A conflict is looming between America's strategic needs and the Philippines' aggrieved sense of nationalism.

The agreements permitting the United States to use the facilities at Clark Air Base and Subic Bay in the Philippines are due to expire in 1991. The negotiations for the year preceding are likely to be among the most important issues facing the Bush foreign-policy team. It is time to open the public debate about options that will protect the interests of both sides.

Clark and Subic are America's largest overseas bases. Clark can accommodate any U.S. aircraft. Subic is the only facility outside the United States where the Navy can lift aircraft off carrier decks for repair. Roughly 20,000 Americans, plus 25,000 dependents, are assigned to the bases that in turn employ more than 65,000 Filipinos.

Together these two bases are the heart of America's Pacific presence. It is no wonder that the U.S. military is anxious to keep such unique assets.

But there is a problem--Filipino nationalism. As I learned recently, any visitor to Manila cannot avoid the bases issue. It comes up in every conversation. According to members of the Filipino political elite--from right to left--there is a consensus in the country that the new agreement must phase out the bases. The disagreements are over the time frame. According to U.S. officials, the Aquino government has no alternative but to continue the status quo, which they tend to regard as permanent. They point out that the country cannot do without the aid tied to the bases agreement--even if we refuse to call the payment "rent"--and they derive comfort from the fact that public-opinion polls show most Filipinos want the bases to stay.

But official U.S. analysis seems to ignore the impact an elite consensus can have on public opinion. Virtually no public figure in the Philippines defends the bases as a good thing. The argument of base supporters is that, for the moment, the country has no choice. In 1988, the Philippine Council on Foreign Relations commissioned a study of the bases' social benefits and costs. It documented enormous social costs but concluded the bases should be retained for economic reasons. The question is whether the average Filipino will reach a similar conclusion when he understands the costs.

He will have a better understanding of these costs in the near future. Sen. Joseph Estrada, a movie star turned politician, has produced a film, "In the Claws of the Eagle," that reveals the negative effects of the bases on the country's social and moral values.

These certainly provide material for a movie. According to the Council on Foreign Relations study, tens of thousands of Filipino women provide sexual services to the U.S. troops. This "hospitality industry" has spawned thousands of street children, of whom only 25% are recognized by their American fathers. The study cites one estimate that the "industry" may produce as many as 30,000 children a year. Many are sold, with whiter children fetching a higher price.

Child prostitution also thrives. Government estimates are that the number may reach 20,000. Many are the illegitimate children of prostitutes.

According to the study, personnel at the U.S. bases may be introducing AIDS into the Philippines. Of the 43 cases recorded in 1987, 37 came from the area around the American bases. There is drug addition as well. As many as 90% of the prostitutes are believed to use drugs.

Filipinos might be able to overlook such enormous social costs if they thought they were receiving an adequate price for the bases. But because of a bizarre act of Henry A. Kissinger during his last days as secretary of state, virtually all Filipino leaders believe the United States is treating their country unfairly. During the transition between Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter, Kissinger offered Ferdinand E. Marcos $1 billion for the bases over a period of five years--an offer Marcos foolishly turned down, only to end up under Carter with just half of what Kissinger offered.

It is probably no accident that the Aquino government revived the $1-billion figure during its negotiations with the Reagan Administration. It settled on $481 million a year, or about one-third of what the Aquino government sought.

Today, in the days of Gramm-Rudman, the checkbook diplomacy represented by Kissinger's offer is out of the question. Nonetheless, Filipino negotiators, aware of the aid levels for Israel and Egypt--which provide the United States with no military bases--ask for more than the Americans believe they can pay.

Is there a policy able to meet strategic U.S. objectives while showing more respect for Filipino nationalism? Elements of such a policy might include:

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