U.S. and Philippine officials will consider arranging limited future access for American military forces in the Philippines after the last U.S. bases here are closed down, Secretary of State James A. Baker III said Saturday.
Emerging from a 30-minute meeting with newly elected Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos, Baker told reporters that military access for the United States will be discussed in November at a meeting of the Mutual Defense Board. The panel meets quarterly to review military cooperation between the two countries under a 1951 joint defense treaty.
Baker said the United States "would be delighted to consider any proposals" for resuming military cooperation between the two longtime allies--making clear that the American military presence here will continue only if the Philippines specifically requests it.
One senior Administration official said the United States wants to send a message throughout Asia that "we aren't withdrawing from the Philippines. We're just withdrawing from the Philippine bases."
The U.S. Navy is currently moving out of Subic Bay, and the last forces are scheduled to leave the sprawling base by Dec. 16 following the rejection by the Philippine Senate last September of a proposed 10-year lease extension. Opponents considered the base a vestige of American colonialism.
The U.S. Air Force already has vacated Clark Air Base, which was heavily damaged by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo last year. It has since been systematically looted of everything from jet fuel to doorknobs. The closing of the two bases, once America's largest overseas, ends nearly a century-old military presence here.
U.S. officials said the access agreement being discussed for the Philippines is similar to one negotiated two years ago with Singapore. Under such an arrangement, the United States does not have its own military base, but it has the right under some circumstances to use another country's military facilities and to move American troops in and out of the country.
The United States is seeking access arrangements with several other Southeast Asian countries. The Pentagon is moving its regional logistics command from Subic to Singapore and is arranging ship repair, landing rights, joint training and other military cooperation with Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
A senior State Department official contended Saturday that with such a series of access arrangements, the United States might wind up with a broader military presence in Southeast Asia than it had when the Philippine bases were operating. "Actually, you'll have more ships stopping in more countries over time (than before)," the official said. The number of American troops stationed in the region will be far fewer, however.
After the Philippine Senate rejected a new base agreement for the United States, the Bush Administration slashed proposed assistance to this impoverished country by two-thirds. Aid reallocations submitted to Congress in June showed a drop in aid to $182 million, down from $532 million previously requested.
In addition to sharp cuts in foreign military financing and economic support for Manila, the Bush Administration, at the request of the U.S. Senate, asked for only half as much funding for the Multilateral Aid Initiative, which Washington sponsored and coordinated following the restoration of democracy here in 1986.
A State Department official told reporters that during Baker's meeting with Ramos, the Philippine president did not ask for any increase or renewal of U.S. aid. "He explained the importance of trade, not aid," the official said.
But Pablo Suarez, a Philippine undersecretary of state who has been appointed the next ambassador to Washington, told reporters in a separate briefing that Ramos had complained to Baker about the reduced aid from Washington.
Suarez said the Philippines hopes to seek additional military aid in the November meeting. "Because of the American aid cut, the armed forces is finding it difficult to operate at the same level as before," he said.
Ramos, a West Point graduate and former general, previously had pledged to modernize what is regarded as one of the worst-equipped and weakest military forces in the region.
The Philippine navy, for example, is unable to thwart rampant smuggling, an estimated $1-billion industry in this nation of 7,000 islands, let alone defend the archipelago against potential attackers. Naval exercises conducted last February were severely hampered when most of the World War II-era fleet broke down before reaching the supposed battle scene.
The air force is little better off. It has six Vietnam-era jet fighters, but only two would be reliable on a military mission. Most other planes are World War II-vintage prop-driven aircraft.
Baker, who is making his first visit to the Philippines as secretary of state, arrived in Manila from Saudi Arabia early Saturday for the final round of meetings of 21 foreign ministers attending the annual weeklong conference of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations. He is to fly back to Washington this afternoon.
Speaking to ASEAN on behalf of Baker on Friday, U.S. Undersecretary of State Robert B. Zoellick reassured the group that America is "committed to maintaining a continuous operational and deterrent capability in Asia. That means troops, fleets and air power deployed forward."
Baker is the most senior American official to visit Manila since Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney made a controversial trip here in March, 1990. Then-President Corazon Aquino refused to meet Cheney, fearing domestic political fallout prior to the bases talks, and relations between the two countries went sharply downhill.