By Patricia H Kushlis
Within months after I arrived in Manila summer 1992, the US Navy took its ships and sailed off – the first time the Philippines had been left to fend for itself after 350 years of Spanish rule and 94 years of American military presence. (Photo left: Subic Bay Decommissioning Ceremony, 1992 by PHKushlis)
An article in the New York Times on July 13, 2013 reported that the US military is now looking for a more or less permanent return to the archipelago although this time on less grandiose scale, stationing more or less permanent US troops inside Philippine military bases as opposed to re-establishing large, expensive stand-alone American installations of times past that were the last US hold-overs since Philippine independence in 1946 and that had been considered vital to US military efforts in Asia throughout the Cold War.
Increasing the support for US interests in East Asia – as the Obama administration’s Asian pivot (or repositioning) calls for – would very likely need to involve closer military to military relations with the Philippines. It may also include closer military cooperation with Vietnam and Thailand – but that's another story.
Looking at it from the Philippine defense perspective, if the country is to respond credibly to China’s threats over the disputed South China Sea it needs the backing of a great power. The Philippine military know that problem all too well.
Meanwhile, the Philippine military have retained close relations with their American counter-parts through the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty. This treaty remained in force even after Subic, the last US base in the country, was turned over to the Philippine government in fall 1992. Subic was subsequently retreaded as a special manufacturing, economic, tourism and trade zone and has, from reports, done well.
Basically, the issue of the return of American military to their former colony is a troubled political one for the Filipinos. On the one hand, it’s the devil you know versus facing off the one may not. On the other hand, there’s the complication of placating ultra-nationalist sentiment rooted in the bitter pallor of western colonialism which has hung over the US-Philippine relationship like a threatening typhoon since the American invasion in 1898 during the Spanish-American war.
Floyd Whaley, New York Times reporter, was right when he described the 1992 base closure as precipitated by the Philippine Senate’s rejection of a treaty that would have renewed the bases agreement (actually there were two US bases at the time of the negotiations: Subic (US Navy) and Clark (US Air Force). He was also right about the then street protests although they had ended by the time I arrived.
After the issue was settled, by fall 1992 a number of the protestors had come off the streets to become frequent visitors to the US Embassy’s then Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center’s well used library in Makati. Furthermore, those of us in the public affairs section were once again welcome on campus. Turned out these protestors weren’t all that anti-American (a number had advanced degrees from American universities not to mention numerous relatives in the US). But they were foremost Philippine nationalists some grappling with a “who are we” multi-racial identity problem as well. They saw the bases as the last remaining remnant of western colonialism forcibly imposed on their ancestors.
What Whaley failed to mention was that Filipino public opinion itself, however, strongly supported the renewal of the bases agreement and the Senate’s vote on the treaty was razor-edge close. As in the US, the Philippine Constitution requires a 2/3rds majority vote in the Senate to approve a treaty. This one lost by one vote. At the time, with the Soviet Union’s recent demise and China far from the economic powerhouse it is today, the Philippines faced no real external threat so it really didn't need a big brother to provide the national security umbrella it lacked.
Times change. Today Manila's national security situation is far different. That is, if Filipinos care about future access to potential but unexplored resources in the seabed below the disputed islands that dot the South China Sea. This is today’s dilemma: it will be interesting to see how this round plays out.