China sparks rekindling of US-Philippine love affair

China sparks rekindling of US-Philippine love affair
Philippine President Aquino (L) with US President Obama (R).

What a difference 20 years make. I still recall watching the Stars and Stripes being lowered for the last time at Subic Bay Naval Base in November 1992 - to the glee of Philippine nationalists and to the dismay of the Corazon Aquino government, reeling from the destruction wrought by the Mount Pinatubo eruption.

United States negotiator Richard Armitage had called me from Washington two years earlier, inquiring whether I thought the Philippine government would extend the leases on Subic and nearby Clark airbase, which US forces had used since the early 1900s.

It was not long after dawn and without giving it a lot of thought, I told the man who would later become President George W. Bush's deputy secretary of state that I was pretty sure Manila would go along with an extension. It wasn't one of my more insightful moments.

Pinatubo complicated matters, its heavy volcanic ash-fall wiping out Clark as an effective base and collapsing more than 150 buildings across Subic. But in the end, public opinion prevailed and the Americans were shown the door.

Fast forward to August 2013 and I'm reading a headline which says "US, Philippines Open Talks on Larger Troop Presence". It brings to mind legendary American baseball player Yogi Berra's now-famous quote: "It's deja vu all over again..."

It is not so much the passage of time that has altered the complexion of the love-hate relationship, but the growing influence of China as a maritime power and its less than subtle designs on the disputed Spratly Islands.

Philippine officials say giving US forces an increased "rotational" presence will help the country attain a minimum credible defence while it struggles to strengthen its own military, one of the weakest in ASEAN.

The presence of foreign forces has always been a sensitive issue in the former US colony, underscored by the Philippine Senate's landmark decision to shut Subic and Clark in September 1991.

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