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Crunch Time for Subic Bay


President Corazon Aquino favors the base rights treaty with the United States and stakes the final prestige of her waning Philippines presidency on it. Most of the Filipino people favor it and know the closing of Subic Bay Naval Base would have a ripple effect through hundreds of thousands of jobs. But it seems unlikely that 16 Filipino senators will favor it, and that is the number needed to ratify the treaty -- two-thirds or more of the 23 members of the Philippines Senate.

The old treaty expires this month. The Philippines Senate in committee-of-the-whole recommended against the treaty, yesterday, by a 12-11 vote, after which President Bush said the U.S. would not improve its offer. The last hope is that a rally President Aquino is calling today will sway senatorial votes before a final Senate decision.

The United States shocked Filipinos by not seeking to keep Clark Air Base after the devastation from Mount Pinatubo volcano. Filipino senators who had hoped to hold up the U.S. for a better deal on Subic Bay must realize that in the new climate of Russian retrenchment, U.S. arms shrinkage and volcanic damage to Subic Bay, the U.S. Navy can live without that giant supply base and ship repair yard.

The stability of East Asia as well as the Philippines economy would be worse for the loss. Even as it is, the ten-year extension of the lease has a smell of being the last. For this the United States would pay $203 million annually, plus trade and other benefits that carry a total package value above $800 million.

The Philippines' Communist-led rebel movement, the National Democratic Front, entered the debate with a promise to end its 22-year insurgency if the senate rejects the treaty or shows a "clear trend" against it. The Filipinos should not accede to such blackmail. Senate President Jovito Salonga proposes a patchwork compromise involving commercial use of the shipyard. Others just want the U.S. to pay more. But there is really no middle way between the agreement and no agreement.

The Philippines has no cushion for the thousands of shipyard workers who would be thrown out of work. At a time of disarray and confusion in Russia -- which includes a huge naval presence in East Asia -- the U.S. Navy is a stabilizing comfort to the security of South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and Japan as well as the Philippines. The U.S. Navy could adapt to use of alternate facilities in Hawaii, Guam and Singapore, though none would serve initially as well.

It is the Philippines that needs this base agreement. Some Filipino senators may have found it convenient to demagogue against Uncle Sam, but now they have a decision to make. If they kick us out, we go. But then they would have to face the Filipino people with some attempt at explanation of why they did what they did.

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