SUBIC BAY, Philippines — When Abu Sayyaf rebels staged a mass kidnapping in the southern Philippines in 2001, the U.S. military sent a small group of counterterrorism training experts and other support to help local troops.
The result: The Islamic rebels have been marginalized.
Now, many Filipinos are hoping a larger American presence will help the Armed Forces of Philippines convert from a counterinsurgency force to one directed at external threats, such as from its neighbor to the north.
Today, a South Korean tourist is more likely to be spotted at Clark Air Base than a U.S. servicemember. The facility, 40 miles northwest of Manila, was the Air Force’s largest overseas installation before its evacuation following the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, and only a few warships are docked at nearby Subic Bay, which was once home to thousands of sailors and their dependents.
That’s likely to change as the U.S. and Philippine governments work out the details of an agreement that will boost America’s military presence in the islands to significant numbers for the first time since the U.S. bases were shut down two decades ago after an impasse was reached on negotiating a new lease.
The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, signed by President Barack Obama during a state visit in April, allows U.S. forces and contractors to operate at agreed locations in the Philippines for at least 10 years. The agreement stipulates that the U.S. can’t set up permanent bases — the revised Philippine constitution bans that — but it hands over operational control of the locations to U.S. forces and allows them to stockpile defense equipment and supplies.
Philippine government officials have said three to five bases are being considered, initially, as hosts for the U.S. forces.
Pio Lorenzo Batino, a defense undersecretary heading the Philippine side of the negotiations under the pact told a news conference in May that one prospect is Fort Magsaysay, where Philippines-U.S. Balikatan exercises are often held.
Officials have remained coy about other potential locations, but Subic and Clark feature in most speculation along with other old U.S. bases and some civilian airports.
Having a large U.S. presence here remains a sticky subject in a country that once was an American colony. But the strongest resistance seems to be limited to students and leftist activists who have staged small but vocal protests regularly outside the U.S. Embassy for years. Other residents are eager to have Americans return.
And one thing that both sides agree on is that China’s recent expansionist moves in the South China Sea are worrying.
Would troops be welcomed back?
U.S. military aircraft, which supported the Special Forces counter-insurgency training in the southern Philippines until recently, are already frequent visitors to Clark. Flight schedules are posted on the wall of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Club, just outside the gate in Angeles City, the meeting spot for hundreds of former American servicemembers still living nearby.
Hermie Barangan, who retired from the Air Force in 1984, was recently at the VFW reminiscing about his days as a member of the Air Force band at Clark. The pianist, who graduated from the Conservatory of Music at the University of Santo Thomas in Manila, goes there regularly to hang out with other retirees.
Barangan has been following the plans for the return of U.S. troops in the local newspapers with interest.
“It’s more than good,” he said of the agreement. “We welcome the U.S. forces.”
He recalled when anti-American activists were bused to Clark from Manila in the 1980s to protest against the base, where they were met by angry locals who threatened to attack them with metal pipes and burned their protest signs.
There are still anti-American protests in Manila, Barangan said, but he thinks most Filipinos firmly support the return of U.S. forces.
The reason: Chinese aggression at Scarborough Shoal — a reef 123 miles west of Subic Bay that is claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines — and in the Spratly Islands — a collection of rocky outcrops not far from the Philippines’ Palawan island.
The territories shelter rich fishing grounds and are thought to lie above vast reserves of oil, natural gas and other precious minerals. The Spratlys are subject to competing claims by the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
China, in the midst of a massive military build-up, has aggressively pursued its territorial claims — moving personnel onto some of the disputed islands and using maritime surveillance ships to harass other countries’ vessels.
The presence of U.S. forces might stem the Chinese bullying and boost investor confidence in the Philippines, Barangan said.
“Who wants to come here and risk his money if it’s not secure,” he said. “Japan is secure because of the US 7th Fleet (based at Yokosuka).”
People who work near Clark, like dentist Arnel MacCay, hope more U.S. troops will be good for business.
“The income for Angeles city was huge when the Americans were here,” he said. “From the 1940s until they left, a lot of doctors benefited, not just from them but from their dependents. Now only the retirees are left for us to treat.”
A measure of the impact that the Americans had on the area: the main American-built four-lane road through town hasn’t been improved since they left, he said.
Clark and Subic Bay haven’t stood still in the past two decades. The facilities are run by government organizations — Clark Development Corp. and Subic Bay Metropolitan Corp. — that are looking for ways to make money in the civilian sector.
Clark is now an international airport with links throughout Asia and the Middle East. Land surrounding the base is being developed as industrial parks. A new toll-road links it to Subic Bay, cutting what used to be a two-hour drive to 45 minutes.
Subic Bay Metropolitan Corp.’s website promotes its “natural deep harbor, sheltered anchorages and strategic location,” along with shipping, tourism and real estate ventures.
Edgar Cruz, a retired petroleum industry worker who used to help pump fuel from the terminal at Subic to Clark, said most of his countrymen look forward to the Americans’ return.
Cruz said he’s angry about the Chinese efforts to take control of oil and gas off the coast of the Philippines.
“It is a large amount of petroleum that will be taken from around these islands,” he said.
However, Cruz warned that the U.S. personnel need to be on their best behavior.
“If something happens the military shouldn’t cover it up,” he said, referring to the case of Marine Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith, sentenced to 40 years by a Filipino judge for raping a woman at Subic Bay in 2005. Smith was detained at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, then returned to the U.S. following a settlement with the victim’s family.
Small, vocal opposition
Such incidents fuel groups opposed to a U.S. military presence.
The League of Filipino Students, for example, has been protesting the basing agreement outside the U.S. Embassy. Spokeswoman Charlotte Velasco said her group has also protested “Chinese incursions” related to the maritime dispute.
“However, we assert that a sane and efficient way to solve this is not through U.S. military intervention,” she said. “Chinese incursions can be efficiently solved through bilateral negotiations and by improving the Filipino people’s capability to fight against aggressors, and not by enforcing a military agreement with the U.S.”
Economic benefits from U.S. forces will be limited to areas close to their bases and won’t have a long-lasting impact on the national economy, Velasco said.
“Intensified military intervention will ensue to stronger U.S. domination and control in the nation’s economy and politics as planned under U.S.’ rebalancing strategy or pivot to Asia,” she said.
The students’ views contrast with people like Cruz, who wants the U.S. forces to come back and arm Filipino troops for any clash with China.
“They are giving billions of dollars (in military aid) to the Israelis and Egyptians,” he said. “Why not give it to us? This is a strategic location in Asia, and during WWII we fought side by side with the Americans.”
In Tacloban, recovering from last year’s Typhoon Haiyan and far from the expected base locations, Mayor Alfred Romualdez is just as enthusiastic about a U.S. troop presence.
“If any aggression happens from any other country it goes without saying that we would need help,” he said. “We are not in a state where we can defend ourselves.”
Patricio Abinales, a University of Hawaii expert on the Philippines, said the nation’s armed forces have spent decades fighting communist and Islamic insurgents and aren’t prepared to face an external threat.
“Most Filipinos welcome the presence of American troops — especially down south (where U.S. Special Forces worked until recently) — but also, with this China thing, they are more than happy to welcome the Americans,” he said.
Anti-American protests have been small scale and led by academics and leftists, Abinales said.
“Once you get out of Manila there is strong support for American military presence,” he added.
The counter-insurgency campaign in the southern Philippines has crushed the separatist Abu Sayyaf group, meaning the military can begin to evolve into a more conventional force, Abinales said.
“It will take five or six years before you have new officers oriented toward external defense rather than internal defense,” he said.
To do that, the Philippines will need warships, combat jets and missiles, he said.