But the U.S.-Philippine relationship also still suffers from a Cold War hangover. Survey data notwithstanding, many Filipinos appear to believe that -- in the name of anti-communism -- America bought access to Clark and Subic by giving 1980s Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos a free hand for authoritarianism and corruption at home. Current President Aquino is the son of dissident Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, assassinated by Marcos's security forces in 1983; protests after Ninoy's death catapulted his widow Corazon to the presidency, and Marcos fled for Hawaii in an American helicopter. After a 1991 volcanic eruption damaged Clark Air Base, the Philippine Senate ejected the United States from the bases in a set of acrimonious failed negotiations that neither side has forgotten. Continued friction over the Visiting Forces Agreement, under which U.S. soldiers accused of crimes in the Philippines can be treated in U.S. courts, hasn't helped.
Perhaps because of this legacy, the Philippines has at times leaned away from the United States and toward China -- as it did under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, president from 2001 to 2010. As recently as 2005, Philippine and Chinese leaders were trumpeting a "golden age" of cooperation, facilitated by booming trade and Chinese development assistance. And since the early 1990s, the Philippines has consistently looked to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for security and economic relations. Even the Aquino administration's American outreach has been complemented by the pursuit of warmer relations with other regional powers: Australia, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The Philippine government's current interest in warming U.S. ties should not be taken as a permanent fixture of Asia's strategic landscape. It will be especially wary if expanding American access looks likely to damage these other relationships.
In response, the United States should pursue an upgraded alliance, but not overplay its hand: Better to start slow and ramp up than to scramble to fix mistakes made in haste. And the alliance will only remain on a sound long-term footing if the benefits of cooperation to the Philippine people (not just their leaders) are clearly explained at every step.
One of the biggest unanswered questions facing the alliance is the shape of America's future military footprint. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario recently confirmed that the government is considering expanding the access given to U.S. military forces. Such access should stop short of permanent basing. For historical reasons, reopening the bases would be unpopular, and -- because it requires amending the constitution, which explicitly forbids foreign military bases -- could stake future cooperation on an uncertain legislative battle. It would also be expensive. At a time when America's Asian allies are already worried about how U.S. defense cuts will affect the pivot to Asia, proposing a strategy the United States cannot afford could damage American credibility.
American and Philippine interests can be achieved just as effectively with a lighter footprint, at lower risk and lower cost. American ships and troops can visit for port calls or temporary deployments, preserving financial and political capital. Military exercises (like last April's Balikatan exercises, or those held in Palawan in October) and military-to-military exchanges can also improve coordination and interoperability. The transfer of a second Coast Guard cutter later this year -- like the one that discovered the Chinese fishing vessels -- should be the first step to help the Philippines acquire the capabilities it needs to monitor and patrol the waters around its 7,000 islands -- benefiting efforts to provide disaster relief and combat terrorism, piracy, and narcotics trafficking. And given the United States' obligations under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, discussions on crisis management and how America's obligations apply to disputed waters are probably overdue.