What Communists, guerrillas, oppositionists, nationalists, students and politicians failed over 45 years to accomplish, Mount Pinatubo accomplished over a weekend. Monday, the Americans left Clark Air Force Base on six hours notice -- dependents, planes, bombs and all. Only a security force remains to guard the place. Can the U.S. maintain Pacific Rim strategic security without Clark? It is doing so this very minute.
Negotiations over a new bases pact with the Philippines government of President Corazon Aquino have been desultory despite a Sept. 30 lease expiration. But an erupting volcano, active for the first time since 1380, concentrates the mind. The eruption began with a huge explosion; the ash plume could be seen 60 miles away in Manila
The U.S. position on Clark and the Subic Bay Naval Station and related facilities is changing. They are no longer indispensable. The U.S. is reducing its military posture. The Soviet Union has receded as a threat to the Pacific Rim and to the world. More self-reliance is expected of such large military establishments as Japan's and South Korea's. The U.S. still has facilities on Guam, Okinawa and Japan, and nuclear missiles stationed at sea. Longer-range capabilities turn continental U.S. bases themselves into deterrents.
And yet the Philippines bases remain desirable. The Soviet nuclear threat remains potent, with political uncertainties as to who will control it in the future. North Korea remains a destabilizing presence, because of its huge conventional armament, political isolation and movement toward nuclear weapons capability. It could trigger an arms race in which South Korea needed to exceed North Korea and Japan needed to out-muscle South Korea. Perhaps the most important value of Clark Air Force Base and the nearby bombing range, however, is for allied pilot training.
The U.S. and Philippines government have agreed on principles of a new lease, while remaining unbridgeably far apart on duration and dollars. It is time for other East Asian countries to make their interests visible. Meanwhile, the quick evacuation of Clark has shown how easily the U.S. can leave. Withdrawal would be against the Philippines' own interests, however, because of both the security shield and the local employment provided. Mount Pinatubo has spoken, with great clarity for the Philippines and East Asia.