The U.S. Military Returns to the Philippines
The Associated Press
The U.S. Military Returns to the Philippines
The Associated Press
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"This is not primarily a military relationship" answered the U.S. ambassador in Manila when asked about the relations between the Philippines and the United States. Perhaps not, but its military aspects have certainly gained greater prominence in recent years. Indeed, ahead of President Barack Obama's originally planned visit to Manila in October 2013, both countries were working on a new security accord, called the Increased Rotational Presence (IRP) Agreement. Once in effect, it would allow American forces to more regularly rotate through the island country for joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises, focusing on maritime security, maritime domain awareness, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The new agreement would also allow the United States to preposition the combat equipment used by its forces at Philippine military bases. That, in turn, would save the time and fuel needed to fly in such equipment and keep it close at hand in case of a crisis. Eventually, the frequency of U.S.-Philippine exercises could increase to the point where there would be a near-continuous American military presence in the Philippines.


The agreement marks a significant milestone in the long-lived military relationship between the Philippines and the United States. That relationship was forged during World War II, when Filipinos fought alongside Americans against Imperial Japan and during which American General Douglas MacArthur honored his vow to "return" to liberate the Philippines. Soon after the war, the United States granted the Philippines its independence and formalized the military relationship in the form of two early Cold War treaties: the Military Bases Treaty (1947) and the Mutual Defense Treaty (1951)-the latter of which remains in force today. The former treaty would result in the creation of America's two largest overseas military bases: Clark Air Base and Naval Base Subic Bay. They and their smaller satellite bases across the Philippines represented what the Chief of Naval Operations in 1958 referred to as "an essential part of a worldwide base system designed to deter communism." For much of the Cold War and particularly during the Vietnam Conflict, they provided logistics support for the U.S. 7th Fleet in the Western Pacific as well as military operations across Southeast Asia.

Many Filipinos, however, saw the bases in a different light. Ever since the Philippines was a colony of the United States, the bases were tangible reminders of American influence over the islands. And after the independence of the Philippines, many saw them as an affront to the full sovereignty of the new country. In addition, the presence of the bases naturally led to other practical, but prickly questions: what level of financial compensation should the Philippines receive for the bases; which country should have legal jurisdiction over Americans off-base or Filipinos on-base; and even which country's flag should fly over the bases. Raising the volume over these issues were Philippine politicians, some of whom used the bases as a convenient way to burnish their nationalist credentials. Still, other Filipinos genuinely felt "slighted by the fact that the United States imposed tougher terms on the Philippines, its former colony and current ally, than it did on the Japanese, the former enemy, to acquire bases in Japan." And so, despite amendments to the bases treaty, the bases issue would remain a source of constant friction between the two allies throughout their existence.

Of course, the bases were only part of a far larger American relationship with the Philippines. After World War II, American aid helped to rebuild much of the war-scarred country. American multinational companies came to dominate much of the Philippine economy. American military support helped the Philippine national government hold in check guerrillas of various stripes. And the United States continued to be a factor in Philippine domestic politics. Even the success of Corazon Aquino's "people power" revolution in 1986 against the authoritarian regime of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos owed something to the intervention of the Reagan administration. In that case, the U.S. bases in the Philippines played a direct role, providing a sanctuary where rebel helicopters refueled and from which the United States ultimately ferried Marcos into exile. A few years later, President George H.W. Bush used the bases to support Aquino's new government against military coup plotters. He ordered American F-4 fighters from Clark Air Base to sweep over anti-government positions in a show of force and promised to terminate American aid if the coup plotters prevailed. The coup attempts petered out. Unsurprisingly, many Filipinos considered their country as one in a state of "dependent independence."

Nevertheless, the late 1980s and early 1990s were an especially complicated time for the bases. The Military Bases Treaty was set to expire. And talks between Manila and Washington to create a new treaty to replace it dragged on. In 1988 Secretary of State George Schultz offered a $491 million aid package to the Philippines to extend the existing treaty until September 1991 so that the two governments could continue to negotiate. Aquino agreed, though the amount was far less than what she originally requested. But by 1991 the Philippines and the United States managed to hammer out a new arrangement-the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Security-that would enable the United States to lease its main bases in the Philippines for another ten years. But when the treaty was brought to the Philippine Senate for ratification, a slim majority of senators voted it down. While some cited the potential presence of U.S. nuclear weapons (forbidden under the new Philippine constitution) on the bases as their reason for opposing the treaty, one senator summed up another motivation: "For me, it's a new beginning of our history as a free people."

A little over a year later, the last American servicemen left the Philippines, hurried along by the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo and the concurrent arrival on a typhoon which covered Clark Air Base in a thick layer of wet ash. America's 94-year military presence in the Philippines came to a close. Only the Mutual Defense Treaty remained. Though the Philippines and the United States established an annual exercise program in 1991, it was terminated a few years later. The mid-1990s marked a low point in the military relationship between Manila and Washington.

Then in 1995 China occupied and began to build permanent structures on Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef, one of a cluster of disputed islets in the South China Sea called the Spratly Islands. There was little Manila could do. Since the early 1960s, the Philippines had allowed its external defense capabilities wither. The end of the Military Bases Treaty made things worse. The Philippine air force could no longer depend on American maintenance support at Clark Air Base and the Philippine navy could no longer rely on military assistance credits from the United States for ships and spares. By the first decade of the new century, the air force would have no jet combat aircraft and the navy would have no ships capable of modern naval warfare. For decades, Manila had focused its resources against internal threats and relied on the United States (and its neighbors' lack of power projection capabilities) to defend its external borders. However, by the late 1990s, China's rapidly modernizing armed forces had begun to alter the strategic balance in Southeast Asia.