A GROUP of Russian officials and businessmen are coming to Manila next month to look into probable economic investments in Subic Bay and Clark Field, two former huge American military bases here. This comes from my unimpeachable source who had a direct hand in convincing Pampanga local government officials to meet and talk with them.
For a quick historical flashback, Clark Field in Pampanga was home of the 5th U.S. Air Force that patrolled the international air space in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia against “unfriendly war planes” since the end of the Second World War up to 1991.
(During the American colonial period here, it was the home of the US Army Air Corps and was known as Fort Stotsenburg. It was heavily damaged by the Japanese in the sneak air raid on the Philippines on December 8, 1941. It was renamed Clark Field after the American Air Corps officer who was killed in the dogfight during that Japanese air attack. In Mabalacat, Pampanga, along the old highway now stands a memorial for the Japanese kamikaze pilots, within sight of the Clark Field extended and modernized runway.)
It was the largest American air base outside of the US and its territories, and was used as a support and procurement point for the Vietnam War after the US replaced the French colonial government in the late 1950s in what was known as French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). France lost its colonial grip on Vietnam when they were beaten by the determined North Vietnamese forces (and the Vietcong) in Dienbienphu in the mid-1950s.
Clark Field was used as the first retreat point of American fighting forces (with Vietnamese refugees bound for the US) in South Vietnam when the Vietnam War ended in April 1975.
The Subic Bay US Naval Base was carved out of the Zambales mountain range facing the South China Sea—the brainchild of US Seventh Fleet Commander Admiral Arthur W. Radford, based in Honolulu, Hawaii, in the mid-1950s—during the first peak of the Cold War to help contain the spread of communism from Russia and China into the Asia-Pacific region. (In the Washington and Manila cocktail circuit during that time, the Subic US Naval Station was not called a “naval base” but “Radford’s folly.”)
Radford chose to build the naval base in Subic because of its deep waters where aircraft carriers and tankers with more than 30 feet drafts and submarines could be based. Subic Bay is also an ideal haven for ocean-going vessels because of the natural protection provided by the Zambales and Bataan mountains, including the long dormant Mt. Pinatubo. The Chinese pirate Limahong and his marauding men who terrorized commercial shipping in the South China Sea and Philippine coastal communities centuries ago, used to seek shelter in Subic Bay and the Lingayen Gulf during bad weather.
These two military facilities, erected under the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Pact (which has other derivative agreements covering constant training of fighting troops, military materiel purchases, presence of American military units, war planes and naval ships and maintenance of territorial integrity and sovereignty) came to an end in 1991 due to two developments:
1. The Philippine Senate by majority vote defied the President Cory Aquino and elected to abrogate the Military Bases Agreement with the US;
2. The Mount Pinatubo volcano erupted, and covered almost all of Central Luzon, the National Capital Region and the Southern Tagalog provinces with pyroclastic material. This forced the US Air Force in Clark and the US Navy in Subic to evacuate all their movable equipment and personnel to Guam and Saipan just a day before the volcanic eruption.
Going over my files (from my working days with the Associated Press, the AP-Dow Jones, Time-Life, the International News Service and as an editor-publisher here and in Thailand), more research through our Center for Philippine Futuristics Studies and Management and networks, some interesting points emerge from the coming of the Russians in the next few weeks, specifically looking for economic opportunities at Subic Bay and Clark Field.
Both areas have their special economic processing zones and transport facilities to move goods by land, air and sea. The Philippines has also started using Subic’s Cubi Point and its modern airstrip as a jump-off point to supply its military personnel in the West Philippine Sea (China claims it as its territory, and bullies any other nation-state who disputes this).
The Philippines now also allows US military troops to use these two former US military bases for joint military exercises or refueling, purchasing (food) and “rest and recreation” (shore leave or entertainment) for American servicemen.
The Russians’ visit also comes at a time when geopolitical and military tensions between the US and its allies on one hand, and China on the other, have escalated, with close “encounters” between their communication and weather observation aircrafts, the additional military facilities build-up in the South China Sea, the territorial disputes between China and Asean members, and the nuclear war test firings by North Korea, a known ally of Russia and China.
From my notes as a news correspondent and editor-publisher, and most reliable sources, over the decades, it appears this is the third approach that the Russians have made on the Philippines. The first was in the 1930s when the Partido Socialista de Filipinas of the late Pedro Abad Santos (chairman), Crisanto Evangelista (secretary general) and Luis Taruc was invited by the Indonesian communist leader Tun Malaka to attend the Russian-led communist expansion movement, Communist International, or Comintern, to its plenum in Moscow.
Abad Santos appointed Evangelista to attend it, representing the Socialist Party of the Philippines. (Originally, there was no Communist Party in the Philippines. This was how the Americans labeled Taruc’s armed rebels, the Huks of Pampanga, in 1950 during the Elpidio Quirino presidency). But Evangelista recommended rejecting Russian communism because “the State owns everything whereas we have been struggling for land ownership for our farmers to solve our tenancy-landlordism problems and improve our rural communities.”
The second Russian overture to the Philippines was during the dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ rule before he opened diplomatic relations with China and Moscow. Because Marcos had outlawed communism and the Huks, and branded student activists and other rebel groups as “destabilizers of the body politic,” the Russians resorted to covert means to gather all types of information on the Philippines.
They used the correspondents of Tass, their government news agency, in Thailand. The Tass chief correspondent in Bangkok said he got daily news from Filipino correspondents of the Agence France Presse, headed by the late Teodoro Benigno, who later became Press Secretary and spokesman of President Cory Aquino. Another newsman was the late Alfonso Policarpio who worked with Benigno.
The approach this time is based on economics and trade. And it comes coincidentally when the Chinese have intensified their economic offerings in the Asia-Pacific region—and Beijing timed it with the leadership changes in Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), Japan and the US over the last two full years.
China’s thrust is infrastructure financing and service assistance, including transportation and communication, to all the Asean 10. Remember the ZTE scandal during the Macapagal-Arroyo administration? And now China is proposing that the railroad networks of all the Asean members located in the Asian mainland connect with Beijing “to spur economic progress” via the “One Belt, One Road” system.
Now, consider these developments, as the third Russian approach comes from the economic side:
1. President Trump has issued his “America First” policy; his getting-friendly-with-Russia policy; taken the US out of the Obama-led Trans Pacific Partnership; US military brass admonishing China against additional military facilities buildup in the Spratly Islands and West Philippine Sea reefs and atolls; and getting friendly (compared to the last administration of President Barack Obama) with all Asean 10, particularly with President Rodrigo Duterte and Duterte reciprocating favorably.
2. China’s 9-dash line sovereign territorial claim to the South China Sea which violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has earned Beijing a host of enemies, especially among the developing countries of Asean.
3. Russia’s entry now comes at the time when China’s economy is expected to slow down while the Philippines is predicted to be the fastest developing country (with 7.2 percent growth rate) in East Asia, surpassing China’s (6.5 percent) growth rate in the next decade.
4. While both communist—and still centrally controlled by their central committees politically—Russia and China have adopted the democracies’ free market economy practices. Russia is a net exporter of fuel and energy. China needs to import energy to stay globally competitive. Like all environmental and health- conscious countries, the two now try to develop their renewable energy resources and technologies.
5. Their economic visit comes on the same year that Manila is chair of the 50th Asean Summit.
All the above show one salient point: The Asean 10, including the Philippines, are going to be the target of superpower investments in this next decade because of their natural resources, growing consumer-populations and can even be a major food basket—as an integrated region—for the world in the next 20 years.
But that bright future has a price that we must pay. That will be the subject of my next columns.
(Comments and reactions to email@example.com. Gil H. A. Santos teaches journalism and geopolitics at the Lyceum of the Philippines University and was news correspondent of international wire services and editor/publisher of foreign and local media for more 50 years.)