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MANILA, SEPT. 25 -- As the United States and the Philippines begin negotiations over the fate of six American military bases here, issues of nationalism that have long inflamed this country's relations with its former colonial patron threaten to frustrate the process.
The immediate outcome of the first round of talks last week was confusion over Philippine claims that the United States had agreed to give up the huge Clark Air Base and four smaller bases by September 1991, with a U.S. proposal for a "phase-down" of Subic Bay Naval Base still under study.
"Initially, we are asking for Clark Air Base and the four other bases," President Corazon Aquino told a news conference Monday. She indicated that this meant U.S. forces should vacate the bases by the September 1991 expiration of the current bases agreement, adding that "this was made known to the U.S. panel during the talks."
The U.S. side, however, says no such demand was presented or accepted.
"We are still very much at the beginning of the negotiating process, and we need to do a lot more talking before we come to any kind of a final agreement," U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Platt said in a radio interview today. He said the United States hopes to retain access to Clark, Subic and associated training facilities, notably the unique Crow Valley bombing and aerial warfare range.
Faced with challenges from leftist and nationalist sectors over the prospect of an extended American military presence in the country, the Aquino government has been playing to some extent to domestic anti-bases opinion, U.S. and Philippine analysts say. Any new bases agreement, Philippine negotiators insist, must come under a broader "treaty" that incorporates U.S. concessions on issues ranging from trade and debt relief to veterans' benefits for Filipinos who fought in World War II.
The U.S. military, recognizing that its current presence cannot continue indefinitely but determined to remain a regional power, is busy meanwhile exploring alternatives to its Philippine sites.
For the Philippines, the bases present a dilemma. The country can ill afford to lose roughly $1 billion a year in income derived from the facilities and the nearly 80,000 jobs they provide, especially at a time when an oil shock is buffeting the economy and the Persian Gulf crisis is forcing tens of thousands of Filipino workers home from overseas. Plans to convert Clark and Subic to civilian uses are designed to be implemented over 10 years and, according to some analysts, may be unrealistic anyway.
Surveys show that most Filipinos do not oppose the bases. In a poll last year, only 13 percent of respondents wanted the bases removed by 1991, 40 percent favored keeping them indefinitely and 35 percent were unaware they existed.
Yet, such is this country's colonial history that no major politician dares openly to advocate keeping the bases. To do so would bring ridicule as an "Amboy," Philippine shorthand for "American boy," a political kiss of death.
Behind this attitude is the belief, held by many Filipinos, that this former U.S. colony will never be truly independent and sovereign until it gets rid of the American military presence, a symbol of domination for nearly a century.
Ousting the bases would cause "temporary difficulties," but the Philippines must accept them, said Sen. Rene Saguisag, a bases opponent. He likened ties with the United States to a parent-child relationship in which "the children just have to grow out of their adolescence and mature."
Even if the U.S. proposal of a gradual "phase-down" of the bases is eventually accepted, Philippine Senate ratification of such an accord would be an uncertain prospect at best, analysts say. For some senators, the vote would be seen as a historic opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the country's revered independence heroes.
A potential complication in the talks is a reported rivalry between the chief Philippine negotiator, Foreign Secretary Raul Manglapus, and his deputy, Health Secretary Alfredo Bengzon. A long-time opponent of the bases and a close presidential adviser, Bengzon helped persuade Aquino in 1985, when she was a private citizen, to sign a petition calling for removal of the bases in 1991.
In studying alternatives to the Philippine bases, U.S. military planners have concluded that the installations cannot be duplicated elsewhere but that their functions can be replaced by dispersing them among sites ranging from Singapore to Australia and the Pacific islands of Guam and Tinian.
Washington is currently nearing an agreement with Singapore to station about 300 U.S. servicemen there and gain regular access to repair and logistics facilities for U.S. warships and up to a half-dozen F-16 fighter planes, American and Singaporean sources said.