- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2000

Imagine John Wayne getting elected president. That was the aura Philippine President Joseph Estrada carried into office two years ago. Today the honeymoon has long faded, but that should not prevent Washington from offering the Philippines much needed help when Estrada visits this week.
Know by his popular moniker "Erap," the reverse of "Pare," or friend, Mr. Estrada entered office with the reputation for having voted against a new treaty to cover the usage by the United States of military bases in the Philippines. In 1991, that treaty failed by the vote of one Philippine senator. But in the intervening seven years, Mr. Estrada, who was never personally hostile to Americans, changed his views about the Philippines longstanding alliance with the United States and has exercised real leadership to revive it.
Almost immediately after entering office in 1998 he campaigned for Philippine Senate approval of a Visiting Forces Agreement. Otherwise known as a "status of forces" agreement, which the U.S. signs with its other allies, it is usually a bureaucratic exercises. But the Philippine Constitution demanded that this simple agreement be approved by their Senate, pitching it into a national debate. Mr. Estrada stood for principle and convinced enough senators to give their approval last year. And since the visit to Manila of U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen last August, the U.S. Philippine alliance has been on a path to revival. This year two large U.S.-Philippine exercises have been held and a resumption of U.S. Navy ship visits to Philippine ports came at a time when the People's Republic of China (PRC) barred U.S. ships from Hong Kong.
Mr. Estrada's new attitude is in part due to one more menacing from the PRC. By stealth, and at perhaps the lowest point in the U.S.-Philippine military relationship in late 1994, PRC ships stole into an area called "Mischief Reef,"about 150 miles from the Philippines, but more than 800 miles from the Chinese Mainland. The Chinese Navy built a structure on the Reef, causing alarm and protests from Manila but not much else. Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea as its own sort of like the U.S. claiming the Caribbean basin it is as absurd as it is threatening to other Southeast Asians. China occasionally deigns to speak to the other claimants, and even to "consider" non-violent codes of conduct, but then continues to build new structures, as it did again in Mischief Reef in November 1998.
If Manila wanted to defend itself from further incursions to could not do so. The Philippine Air Force and Navy are almost non-existent. The Air Force consists of 10 F-5A jets, a type that first entered Philippine service in 1965. The Navy has only three small but modern gunships with no missiles. In contrast, this week, the first 7,000-ton Chinese Luhai class destroyer, with 16 anti-ship missiles, is on a diplomatic tour of Southeast Asia and Africa. Beijing is buying new combat aircraft from the Russians, like the modern Suhkoi Su-30 strike fighter, which can carry supersonic Kh-31 anti-ship missiles, and precision-guided bombs. This, plus gathering PRC theater missile forces, means the Chinese military will begin to outclass those of even the wealthier Southeast Asian states in the near future.
After taking its time, the Clinton administration has to its credit recognized that reviving U.S.-Philippine military relations serves larger U.S. interests in deterring PRC adventurism in Southeast Asia. The U.S. can do more, such as being quicker to react, and more critical of PRC aggressive behavior in the South China Sea. The Pentagon has also started a process of consultations with Manila that could lead to some useful U.S. military aid. It is important the U.S. do so quickly, and President Clinton should have something substantial to offer President Estrada, like excess U.S. warships or combat aircraft.
However, and this is where Mr. Clinton can make a real difference: Such aid needs to be offered with respectful but very serious advice. Washington can't simply rearm the Philippines as that would create dependencies that led to painful end of the U.S. bases. However, U.S. aid can be part of a Philippine commitment to spend real money on a modernization program that has languished in Manila for far too long. In suggesting as much, however, Mr. Clinton should tell Mr. Estrada clearly that both America and the cause of peace in Asia require a strong U.S.-Philippine alliance.
Mr. Estrada needs this help, in as much as his own mistakes and a revival of historic resentments, has led to a new and dangerous military confrontation with Muslim groups on the islands of Mindanao. It is not yet an outright war, but it could get there if Mr. Estrada is not able to address root causes of social justice and economic underdevelopment. Accusations of corruption and cronyism also dog Mr. Estrada.
But like John Wayne, and in the image of his own very popular film career, Mr. Estrada always got the better of his foes, and has three years to save his own political legacy. So in addition to some real aid for a long ally, Mr. Clinton might also offer Erap some free advice on how to protect that legacy.


Richard Fisher is an senior fellow with the Jamestown Foundation.

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