ON May 14, exploratory talks on US military bases in the Philippines finally commenced. The bases are governed by the 1947 Military Bases Agreement, which expires in 1991. Postponed after the December 1989 attempted military coup, the talks are preparatory to actual negotiations on the future of the bases, and are designed to reduce significant areas of disagreement. If successful, formal negotiations will follow. For the US, at stake are installations regarded as key components of the American defense perimeter. Historically, the bases have allowed the US to patrol the South China Sea and the Western Pacific, as well as the straits, critical ``choke points,'' connecting the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean. The strategic import of the bases increased dramatically when the Soviets, following the Vietnam War, established a significant naval and air presence in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, the US has been determined to maintain the bases at virtually any cost, which in the past meant support for the pro-bases, and thoroughly corrupt, regime of President Ferdinand Marcos. This policy diminished other aspects of the US-Philippine relations. Not surprisingly, among Filipinos there is a residue of resentment from the Marcos years, which partly manifests itself as opposition to the bases and is particularly evident in the Philippine Senate, which must ratify a new treaty permitting the bases to stay beyond 1991.
The future of the bases in the Philippines is, therefore, uncertain. The difficult process of extending them beyond 1991 could unravel at a number of points along the way. This uncertainty is healthy because it has finally forced the US to examine alternatives, such as Singapore, to a Philippine basing strategy.
For Washington, the exploration of alternatives has not come too soon. A new treaty will undoubtedly contain terms requiring substantial compensation to the Philippines. At a time of extreme budget constraints in the US, and of increased US-Soviet cooperation - the lack of which formed the main rationale for costly foreign military bases - the timing appears right to move toward closing the bases.
Of greater import, President Corazon Aquino also faces serious challenges from a restive military, from Muslim secessionists, and from the Marxist New People's Army (NPA), which controls or influences significant portions of the impoverised countryside. The cumulative effect of these challenges has been to stretch the limited resources of the military almost beyond endurance.
There was a time, short in duration, when Mrs. Aquino could have reduced peasant support for the NPA. After assuming office in 1986, she initially had an opportunity to move ahead with comprehensive land reform, a measure critical to addressing long-held peasant grievances. Instead, she referred the issue to the newly elected Congress, a body dominated by landed interests. The results were predictable: a diluted land reform program and a dynamic, continuing rebellion.
WITHOUT the political will in Manila required to improve the lot of average peasants, instability will not disappear. It is likely the conflict will expand and claim more Americans, such as Col. James Rowe, a US military advisor, killed last year by NPA assassins and the US servicemen killed near Clark Air Base just last weekend. Ominously, a top NPA priority is to acquire heavy weapons, possibly from North Korea. If it succeeds, the tide of battle could turn sharply in favor of the rebels.
Given this possibility, the likelihood of direct US military involvement on Manila's behalf also increases. This was hinted at last December when US jets overflew the positions of military rebels and grounded their planes.
Although President Aquino survived, doubts about the viability of her government persist. Worse, with presidential elections two years away, chances of an improved political climate are not good, given the likely choices from a field of pro-military candidates and ineffectual reformers.
It is an axiom of wise policy to locate overseas bases in stable host countries. By this standard, the Philippines fails. US policy should finally reflect acceptance of this fact and the need to negotiate an appropriate manner and time for withdrawal. In deference to the security concerns of regional US allies, withdrawal may occur in phases and span a period of time extending beyond the current treaty's fast approaching deadline. Such deference aside, withdrawal should be a clear policy goal, toward which this month's talks are a first step.