Nearly a generation ago, a dozen senators voted to terminate the 1947 Military Bases Agreement (MBA) with the country’s long-time and only security ally, the United States.

The legislators, including many supporters and allies of the late president Corazon Aquino, defied her administration’s wish to grant the Americans another lease on two large overseas military facilities in Clark and Subic.

Clark Air Base in Pampanga was the home of the 13th US Air Force and Subic Naval Base in Zambales was the home port of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet.

Both facilities played pivotal roles not only in the region’s stability and security, especially during the Cold War and the Vietnam War, but also in the Middle East’s, serving as transit points for aircraft during the 1990 Gulf War against Iraq.

But the senators did not only abrogate the bases agreement, they also threw out the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), a legal framework for US troops deployed to another country. It is a standard military-to-military deal with countries around the world hosting US forces — in Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.

Who needed the American bases at that time?

The Philippines had relied for too long on the US security umbrella during the Cold War, giving the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, all the time in the world and the resources to fight internal security threats, from the Maoist-led guerrillas to the Muslim separatists in the south.

Yet, he failed to defeat them. The New People’s Army (NPA) grew from a ragtag band in central Luzon to more than 25,000 fighters controlling a quarter of the country’s 42,000 villages nationwide.

Marcos nearly lost Mindanao to the secessionist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in early 1970s but Muslim states intervened and convinced the rebels to accept autonomy and a ceasefire in 1976.

The world was different in 1991 when the US was forced out of Clark, Subic, and smaller facilities like Camp John Hay in Baguio City and the JUSMAG property in Quezon City.

The Soviet Union disintegrated after a failed coup in August 1991, just a month before the historic vote in the Philippine Senate.

China was busy re-educating its citizens after the bloody June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, but it began making its presence felt in the South China Sea, seizing control of Fiery Cross reef after a naval battle with Vietnam in 1988.

The US won a war in the Middle East, liberating Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion and affirming its role as the only superpower in the world.

Who needed the Americans?

Nature conspired to hasten the Americans’ withdrawal after a dormant volcano, Pinatubo, came to life, erupting in June 1991 to bury Clark Air Base under tons of volcanic ash and debris.

Washington needed to spend about $500 million to clean up Clark Air Base but the US economy was in a bad shape at that time. It was even closing down several military bases in the Continental United States (CONUS).

When the US withdrew from Clark in the middle of 1992, the Philippines, under a new president, Fidel Ramos, was forced to clean up the mess left behind.

Without an imminent external threat and a weak US economy, it was easy for the Americans to abandon their presence in the Philippines, saving them $200 million a year in rent.

In Japan and South Korea, where the Americans have huge presence, the host countries were paying for the military bases’ upkeep,

The situation changed in the 2000s. The Americans wanted to return to the Philippines after China took advantage of US absence in the region and seized control of Mischief Reef in 1995.

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Washington and Manila continued to hold annual “Balikatan” exercises after the last sailor left Subic in November 1992, granting thousands of US troops diplomatic immunity under the embassy’s AT (administrative and technical staff) status.

But the two sides later decided to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement because it was inconvenient to grant diplomatic immunity to thousands of soldiers, sailors, marines, and aviators visiting the Philippines for two weeks.

The deal was sealed in 1998 but the agreement’s name was changed to “Visiting Forces Agreement” (VFA) to soften political opposition to the military-to-military arrangement.

Did we need the Americans at that time?

China started to flex its muscles in the South China Sea as well as threaten Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province.

A Rand Corp. study commissioned by the US Air Force in 2000 even suggested that Washington rent a rock in the Southeast Asia region, in particular in the Philippines because of its strategic location — close to both flash points in Taiwan and South China Sea.

Twenty years after it built a makeshift fishermen’s shelter in Mischief Reef, China has seven artificial islands in the Spratly, turning the half-submerged reef into a fortress with a 3,000-meter airstrip and secured port, guarded by anti-ship and anti-air missiles.

The United States needed a strong presence in the region and struck a deal with the Philippines in April 2014 to allow its forces access to five local bases — four air force facilities and a jungle training base in Nueva Ecija.

But the “iron-clad” Philippines-US alliance was tested when Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016. He immediately pivoted to China and Russia, America’s arch-enemy.

Last year, he asked his secretary of foreign affairs to serve the Americans a notice scrapping the two decade-old VFA in retaliation to the US State Department’s decision to revoke the visa of his political ally and former national police chief Ronald dela Rosa, now a senator.

The coronavirus pandemic delayed the implementation of the VFA termination, suspending it twice until August this year.

Last week, Duterte announced bilateral talks to renegotiate the VFA. But he might be disappointed because the Americans were not interested in amending or revising the agreement.

They only wanted to improve the implementation of the pact to avoid problems in the future, given what had happened to two US marines. One was accused of rape and another was convicted of murder.

There are indications Duterte will end the VFA in August after his meeting with a former senator, Juan Ponce Enrile, who was among the 12 lawmakers who voted to kick the bases out in 1991.

“It’s up for renegotiation and that power belongs to the president. I should have an idea, hearing from you what I should do,” Duterte said, referring to Enrile.

“So I would like to just study very carefully the advent or with the coming of the renegotiation of the Visiting Forces Agreement. Something (sic) has got to give.”

Are the Americans’ presence needed?

Duterte might find it useless to keep the US’ presence but his national security team would disagree with him. It strongly believes the US is the balancing power against China in the region.

There are potential risks but the economic and security benefits still outweigh Duterte’s imagined nuclear war in the region.

In 1991, the senators kicked the Americans out. It was a nationialist legislative vote.

Duterte might scrap the VFA for good in August. It will be a pro-China executive decision.

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