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U.S. Starts Removing Gear From Subic Base : Philippines: Washington intends to meet Manila's deadline to vacate by the end of 1992.

December 28, 1991|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANILA — The U.S. Navy already has begun withdrawing heavy equipment from Subic Bay Naval Base, and a senior U.S. official said Friday that Washington is committed to meeting a Philippine government deadline to shut America's largest naval base in Asia before the end of 1992.

"The pace of the withdrawal will be such that it will preclude any walking back," the official said, when asked whether the United States hopes to renegotiate the one-year eviction order after May's scheduled national elections bring a new government to power in the Philippines. "That's not on our agenda. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating."

The official was responding to Friday's statement from President Corazon Aquino that an order will be issued Tuesday giving the Navy 12 months to pull out all 5,800 of its personnel and 5,000 U.S. military dependents from the huge facility 50 miles northwest of Manila.

Aquino was forced to issue the order after months of negotiations between American and Filipino delegates on a three-year withdrawal agreement broke down Friday, largely over the issues of command and control over the base during the pullout and the movement of nuclear weapons through the facility.

Both sides took pains to stress that relations between the two countries will not be affected by the end of America's century-long military presence in the Philippines.

"The friendly and cordial relation between the Philippines and the United States will continue, notwithstanding our inability to agree on the terms of the withdrawal agreement," Franklin Drilon, Aquino's executive secretary, said in announcing the eviction notice. "This relationship, bound by long historical ties and strengthened by our common adherence to democracy, goes beyond and involves a wider range of concerns than the terms of the withdrawal agreement."

Echoing Drilon, the U.S. official in Washington also spoke of "a bond of friendship" and its "enduring features" between the two countries. But he also conceded that "there are a lot of minuses" in the relationship, as well.

Subic's closure will mark the end of a protracted, often acrimonious series of negotiations, both in Manila and Washington. The talks on bases have spanned more than five years during the terms of three U.S. ambassadors. The process itself has tarnished the U.S. image in Manila and that of the Philippines in Washington.

Ultimately, the talks failed over several fundamental clashes between the constitutional and strategic imperatives of the two countries, among them a Philippine constitutional ban on nuclear weapons; the United States refuses to confirm or deny that nuclear arms are present on any given naval vessel.

Manila insisted that, under a three-year withdrawal agreement, there be a gradual shift from American to Filipino officers of base command and control--which the U.S. official Friday called "a sacred right" in the U.S. Navy.

In assessing the final collapse of the talks, the U.S. official said that both Aquino and the Bush Administration preferred the three-year pullout schedule: "We had wanted it. They had wanted it. We tried to make it happen. We didn't make it."

The official said that the failed coup in the Soviet Union, which occurred last August at a key point during the base negotiations, was a major factor in the U.S. decision to toughen its stance on a three-year accord and to have a contingency plan to withdraw from Subic within a year.

Sounding the theme for the message that President Bush is likely to bring with him on his coming tour of Asia and Australia, the official said, "The U.S. intends to maintain a forward defense presence in the Pacific. However, the threat today isn't there to have the same level of presence. For example, you don't have to have the same number of ships present as we have in the past.

"The point is," he added, that "the American security shield can still be in place, but it doesn't have to be as thick as it used to be."

Navy officials have yet to state which of the three major functions at Subic--ship repair, logistics support or training--will be moved and which will be phased out. But in keeping with plans for across-the-board American military cutbacks, the official said many of the bases' facilities will be scrapped.

"Many, if not most of the things that are being done at Subic won't be done at all," he said. Some of the equipment will be moved to other U.S. bases in the Pacific, presumably Guam. But he added, "The size of Subic will not be duplicated elsewhere."

The order to close Subic--the last vestige of a U.S. military presence in this former American colony that began in 1898--came just over a month after the U.S. Air Force shut its sprawling Clark Air Base in Angeles City.

Clark was heavily damaged by volcanic eruptions at nearby Mt. Pinatubo, which blanketed the facility with ash, ruining many buildings. U.S. military planners decided that the cost of repairing the base would far outweigh its continuing strategic advantages.

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