SUBIC BAY, Philippines - When the last batch of American troops left this former U.S. naval base on Nov. 24, 1992, marking the complete closure of U.S. military bases in the Philippines, many Filipinos rejoiced over what they regarded as the triumph of patriotism and genuine independence, never mind apprehensions over the projected negative impact on the economy and security.
"It was a resounding victory for our people's long struggle against foreign military forces on our land which had undermined our foreign and security policy, and kept us hostage and made us a launching pad for so long to U.S. interventionist wars in Asia and other parts of the world," University of the Philippines professor Roland Simbulan said at a recent gathering here in the Subic Bay Freeport Zone.
"Filipino patriots consider that day historically significant because it marked the end of 470 years of foreign military bases and foreign troop presence on Philippine soil, which began during the Spanish colonization and extended almost permanently during the American colonial period and beyond Philippine independence in 1946," he added.
The pullout of American soldiers also cured at a certain level the social problem of prostitution, restored the self-confidence and pride of the local people, who, for the longest time, felt they were being treated as second-class citizens in their own land, and encouraged a major cultural transformation in the immediate community, local college professor Edgar Geniza said in a separate interview.
"It was good for the Philippines and for the people of Olongapo (which is directly outside the U.S. naval base). If there was no base pullout, I wouldn't have taken the civil engineering licensure exam and my master's degree. I would have only been satisfied working as a technical person," shared Marco Estabillo, a former apprentice in the U.S. Navy who is now among the senior managers of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, the agency governing the zone.
Environmentalists and labor activists also hailed the shutdown of the bases as it ended the country's suffering from alleged toxic waste disposal and exposure to unhealthy working environments, specifically sites with asbestos.
And as the years went on, Simbulan said the conversion of Clark Air Field in Pampanga province and Subic Naval Base into economic centers disproved the "doomsday scenario" for the country's economy painted by some U.S. officials and pro-American Filipinos.
"Subic is very successful. It's a showcase," SBMA chairman Roberto Garcia declared in a recent Kyodo News interview.
"In the past 20 years, we have been able to attract $8 billion in accumulated investments. And this has provided all of these 92,000 accumulated jobs. It provides a very big economy for the Philippines," he added.
But recent developments both within the Subic Bay Freeport Zone and the country's lingering territorial disputes, particularly with China, have posed new challenges for SBMA.
Internally, SBMA is not really making money, incurring in fact a cumulative loss of 7 billion pesos (about $170.73 million) because of foreign loan obligations and underutilized facilities.
The Subic Bay International Airport, which was constructed by the Americans in the 1950s, has been idle for the last few years after package delivery company FedEx Corp. moved its operations to China, while only 4 percent of Subic's seaport capacity is currently being utilized, owing to alleged monopolization of port operations in the capital Manila.
"SBMA is going down. It's very difficult for SBMA to stand without having to ask for financial assistance from the national government at this point," said Leonardo Mesiano, a former SBMA official and currently an investors' coordinator.
Mesiano disclosed that the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, which has a land area of 67,452 hectares, also has no more space to sell to potential business locators.
Some of the present locators are also complaining about additional collections, inconsistent administrative procedures, and an unfriendly policing attitude by SBMA, all of which, Mesiano said, could drive investors away.
Mesiano urged the SBMA leadership to improve its services, speed up its efforts to expand the zone's territory to accommodate new investors, work with the national government to transfer some shipping companies from the ports of Manila to Subic, and allow the U.S. military to use the idle Subic airport for a fee as he projects it would stimulate further economic activity, aside from the security assistance it could provide the Philippines.
Acknowledging the challenges, Garcia said a five-year strategic plan had been designed to reutilize the airport, initially bring up the seaports' utilization rate to 20 percent, and boost further the already booming tourism activity in Subic.
"The vision is to make this the premier Freeport in Asia because of our location as the center of Asia, our cost-advantage, and the natural infrastructure left by the Americans," Garcia said, citing plans of developing the maritime business, particularly shipbuilding and repair, following the "successful example of Hanjin Heavy Industries" of South Korea in Subic.
For the airport, Garcia said he initially proposed its conversion into a large amusement theme park like Singapore's Sentosa to be able to draw in at least 5 million tourists. It was also projected to bring in $5 billion in investments and provide at least 50,000 jobs.
But it was shelved because of the Defense Department's intention to let the Philippine Air Force use the airport amidst the country's lingering territorial dispute with China over resource-rich areas in the South China Sea.
On Friday, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told Kyodo News that "the SBMA is supportive of the Armed Forces of the Philippines' plan to move into Subic."
Garcia said earlier, however, that he expects the national government to compensate SBMA for usage of the airport.
Aware of the territorial disputes and the U.S. military's pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, Garcia acknowledges that Subic "definitely" will have an important role to play, especially because of its close location to the disputed Scarborough Shoal where a tense standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels took place early this year.
He cites the already increasing number of visits of U.S. military vessels in Subic.
"The Philippines was never preoccupied with defending its borders. But now, because of the China issue, the Philippines is now forced (to boost its territorial defense). Since we don't have the capability, it's the U.S. that will provide that protection, even just by mere presence," Garcia said.
According to SBMA records, 56 U.S. Navy vessels and submarines visited Subic Bay from January to September this year, higher than the 55 for the entire 2011 and 51 in 2010. And these figures are significantly higher compared to 15 in 2004 and 18 in 2005.
Garcia said that "as long as it's done on a temporary basis and within the framework of the Visiting Forces Agreement," he welcomes port calls and visits by U.S. military ships because of their economic impact on Subic, citing for example the estimated $4 million spent by visiting U.S. troops during 10 days last October.
But Simbulan wants the government to stop clinging to the United States and further diversify its security ties with other countries, including even China, which, he said, is already an economic superpower.
"For our national interest, it is better to engage China more in a diplomatic way rather than be confrontational," he told Kyodo News.
"The problem really here is strengthening our defense capabilities. Our Navy is very weak, as is our Air Force, and this is the result of too much dependency on the U.S.," he added.
For him, it is best for the Philippines to look at its long-term economic ties with China and simultaneously develop the country's defense capability, as it also resolves the problem diplomatically with the help of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
"Why go back to the past if we have proven in the past 20 years that there is life after the bases?" Simbulan said.
But with the present realities about China's aggressive assertion of its claims in the South China Sea and the existence of the Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty and Visiting Forces Agreement, Simbulan's prayer might be too remote from the policy that the government is taking.
Perhaps total independence from the United States can start if a recent congressional resolution that stemmed from alleged dumping of hazardous waste from a U.S. Navy ship in waters off Subic last October leads to termination, at first, of the Visiting Forces Agreement.