CLEARLY, THE SOVIETS are up to something in the Philippines. The question is what?

"I have no doubt in my mind," Adm. James A. Lyons Jr., U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, declared in April that "the Soviet Union is aiding the {Philippine} rebels."

Many in the American and Philippine intelligence communities disagree with Lyons. But analysts have been so preoccupied with finding concrete evidence of Soviet arms -- which has not yet emerged -- that they have missed what has been happening: The rebel forces have grown strong; reports of Soviet military aid have increased; and leadership of the Philippines Communist Party (CPP) has changed its once wary attitude toward accepting foreign support. Moreover, the Soviets have been courting the Aquino government with offers of investment and expanded commercial ties.

Since January of this year, numerous reports have been filed from Manila alleging sightings of Soviet submarines and of Soviet planes dropping supplies to the rebel New People's Army (NPA). In May two Soviet diplomats arriving from Singapore were caught by Manila airport security trying to leave without clearing immigration.

The Soviets have protested, and the NPA general staff agrees, that they are not providing "funds, arms and guerrilla warfare expertise" to the NPA. Even the government doesn't suspect the Soviets are spies, according to President Corazon Aquino, who is considering strengthening diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.

The Soviet ambassador assures Aquino that "we will never interfere with the internal affairs of the Philippines . . . . " Instead, the Soviets want to invest in the islands, offering to provide a $350-million coal-fired electrical generating plant in a Finnish joint venture. They also offered to use moribund Philippine ship-repair facilities, conveniently located next to the American naval base at Subic Bay. Because of job cutbacks in the Middle East, the Philippines even want to export workers to Siberia.

As part of an effort to improve their image, the Soviets replaced their ambassador, the only diplomat to congratulate Ferdinand Marcos for winning the 1986 presidential election. Construction has also begun on a new Manila office building and home for the Soviet trade representative in fashionable Forbes Park, also home of the American ambassador. Now the Soviets want to open consulates in the southern cities of Cebu andDavao, where the United States also maintains a diplomatic presence.

The Soviets have long been interested in gaining a foothold in the Philippines. Gorbachev's famous July 1986 Vladivostok speech, when he declared Soviet intent to become a Pacific power and to work for regional demilitarization, had its precursor in Brezhnev's June 1969 Soviet Asian collective security proposal. Now the Soviets have a base in Vietnam and are eyeing the South Pacific. Their persistence is impressive.

The Soviets began translating Philippine books and training linguists in the dominant dialect, Tagalog, in the early 1960s even though diplomatic relations were not established with the Philippines until 1976. In fact, Philippine travel to communist countries was banned until Marcos lifted restrictions in April 1966, and Filipino diplomats were forbidden to socialize with their communist counterparts until March 1972.

The Soviets, despite such obstacles, pursued the courtship, encouraging indirect trade with the Philippines through third countries in the 1960s and enrolling Filipino students, including the daughter of Marcos' intelligence chief, in Moscow University. Marcos himself dangled the threat of a larger Soviet presence in front of the Americans whenever he wanted Washington's attention.

Reports of Soviet military aid, similar to the current spate, also surfaced occasionally. In 1978, for example, Cuban advisers were reported to be training insurgents in central Luzon. In 1979 arms were said to have been off-loaded from a ship in Davao del Sur. In 1981 Philippine officials complained about intercepting "Soviet hydrographic ships" with "sensor equipment" calling at southern ports. And so on.

But for many years, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the real threat was Chinese. The Communist Party of Philippines, established in 1968, was avidly Maoist, attacking "Soviet social imperialism." Much hard evidence then indicated Chinese support for the rebels, including shipments of arms and, later, financial support. In 1975, however, Marcos established diplomatic relations with China and, as a condition, China discontinued aid to the NPA. In April 1983 the embassy reported and the State Department concurred that "there is no evidence of current PRC support for the NPA." Nor was there concrete evidence of any other external assistance between 1975-1980.

During the early 1980s, however, reports again surfaced of foreign funding and arms shipments to the NPA. In January 1981, a now declassified cable from the American embassy in Manila observed that the NPA "have sought support from Cuba and Nicaragua, but there is no evidence that such support has been forthcoming." Further exchanges of cables in 1982 were similarly inconclusive, although in September 1982 the embassy cabled that a single Soviet-made AK47, possibly procured through South Yemen, had been recovered in an NPA encounter.

In any event, the communist leadership's attitudes towards the Soviets began to change in the 1980s. The Christian Science Monitor reported in 1983 that one guerrilla stated that they would accept Soviet weapons "if there were no strings attached." But the Monitor also reported in 1985 that a Soviet offer of "substantial military aid" earlier in the year was rejected because of logistical problems and the CPP's fears that the United States would be drawn directly into the conflict. An NDF spokesman denied that an offer had been made but did confirm seeking "material and political support from abroad."

Ang Bayan (The Nation), the CPP's monthly newspaper, declared in July 1986 that "we must expand and intensify our international solidarity work and link it directly with our national revolutionary struggle." In August 1986, an NDF leader participated in the non-aligned meeting in Zimbabwe and the NDF sponsored "exposure" visits to the Philippines by various European and Australasian parliamentarians, journalists and trade unionists. The CPP claims to have established "warm relations" with the ANC, SWAPO and Algeria. Jose Sison, the CPP's founder, released from detention by President Aquino, embarked on an extensive speaking tour of Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Europe.

As Ang Bayan noted in its January 1987 issue, "scores of solidarity committees" have been established in the United States, western Europe, Latin America, Australia and Asia to "gather various forms of support, political, diplomatic, or material. . . for the Philippine revolution." How successful these committees have been in garnering support is unknown.

The Soviets are testing the waters, but so far there is little evidence that they have done more, according to American intelligence sources. Nor is there any concrete evidence of CPP cadres being trained abroad in such countries as Vietnam. Foreign journalists traveling with the NPA rarely report seeing AK47s, and Philippine military have not yet recovered any M16s that are not traceable. Lt. Gen. Salvador Mison, vice-chief of staff, stated in a Washington meeting in May that reports of Soviet arms are the "products of very fertile minds."

Reports of Soviet submarines and subsequent denials make good copy but are not the story. The NPA do not need Soviet trainers or even Soviet arms. They have done quite well with U.S. Army field manuals and can buy or capture arms locally. What they need is money and credibility. These the Soviets can provide.

Money sustains the war. It costs more than $1,000 a month to keep one company of 100 NPA fighters in the field. Military costs are only the most visible part of the movement which requires large sums to sustain political cadres and to support "mass actions." What is curious is how little of the CPP's money does go into weapons. Its regular fighting force numbers approximately 20,000 men, only half of whom are estimated to have weapons. Intelligence sources believe that the NPA could field several thousand more troops if they had arms.

The reason they do not purchase arms may lie more in differences of strategy than problems of supply. Maintaining a proper balance between the armed and political struggles has always been an issue in internal party debates. Too heavy an emphasis on the military struggle, it is feared, might advance the revolution before the "political ground" had been appropriately prepared. This could provoke a popular reaction against the party while more overt warfare might invite American intervention -- a major reason why the NPA in an April press conference threatened to kill Americans aiding the government's counter-insurgency campaign.

American "sensitive" intelligence recently reports evidence of NPA efforts to purchase arms from North Korea but probably not in large quantities. The Muslim separatists, who have been fighting their own decades-long battle in the southern Philippines, control the most efficient arms-smuggling routes and have consistently been hostile to NPA overtures. The CPP has been unable to develop its own secure supply routes. This partially accounts for the sporadic nature of rumors about arms shipments to the NPA.

If the Soviets wanted to, they could ensure a steady supply of weapons. That they haven't indicates the war has not yet reached a critical point. It also is a sign of continued hostility to Soviet aid among the CPP's rank and file, who have been so long indoctrinated with anti-Soviet rhetoric.

More importantly, the Soviets do not have to provide direct aid to have influence. A more lucrative Soviet approach to low-intensity conflict in the Philippines is their current strategy of obtaining intelligence and securing a political foothold. In November 1984 the World Peace Council held a meeting in Manila at which time Soviet agents reportedly met with the CPP. More importantly, two Tass correspondents visited Davao City, a center of NPA activity, in early December 1984, presaging a growing Soviet interest in Davao. Over the past year the Soviets have returned to Davao several times.

Whether or not the Soviets have a long-term plan for turning the Philippines into a satellite state is beside the point. What they do have is a strategy for positioning themselves to influence events in the Philippines.

The Soviets, for example, distribute their press releases in Tagalog while the USIA publishes its in English. With American base-rights renegotiations beginning in 1988, the Soviets can be expected to arouse further Philippine nationalist sentiment against the American military presence.

The conflict is escalating, with the Soviets poised to play on what was once exclusively American turf. In one week alone in March, more than 100 people were killed. Twelve police and military men were assassinated in Manila during the first three months of this year. Although Aquino has declared that "the battle has only begun," it is not clear where the battle will lead. The Philippine military is still in a dismal shape, but Congress has cut back American military aid. Thanks to Sen. Jesse Helms' opposition to the nominee, the U.S. has been without an ambassador in the Philippines since May. Russian smirks can be well imagined.

Richard Kessler is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.