For years, the U.S. has described its giant military bases in the Philippines as "indispensable." So it is a sign of the serious trouble America is having in negotiating new leases that officials would even talk of relocating the facilities elsewhere.
Yet that is now happening.Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci both admit the talks are "not going well" and have raised the possibility of moving the bases.
Carlucci has bluntly told Filipino officials the bases would be moved if the Philippines insist on too much compensation for letting them stay.
Let's hope that drastic situation does not arise. The cost of replacing sprawling Clark Air Base and the Navy base at Subic Bay would be enormous - at least $10 billion. And moving to Guam, the most probable site, would not be as geographically convenient.
While communist agitators have tried to make the American bases a big issue, there is little public opposition to the facilities among the Philippine people. But most want the U.S. to pay more under a new agreement.
Actual figures are secret, but the Philippine demand has been reported as high as $1.2 billion a year, more than twice what the U.S. apparently is offering. While the U.S. needs the bases, it can't let itself be held up for unreasonable rent just because the Philippine economy is hurting.
The two sides also are far apart on some special side issues, such as storage of nuclear weapons, forgiving of some Filipino foreign debt, and ownership of improvements at the bases.
The Soviets are getting into the act, as well. Mikhail Gorbachev said this week that the Russians would pull out of their big base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam if the U.S. leaves the Philippines. That is hardly a quid pro quo.
Most experts say the bases aren't vital to Philippine security, but are important to the global geopolitical strategy of the U.S.
But the bases clearly are a major factor in the Philippine economy. Their loss would be severely felt by Filipinos, despite pronouncements from some officials that the country would do even better without them. That is mostly bargaining talk.
Two old friends and allies such as the Philippines and the U.S. should be able to work out some satisfactory arrangement. Failure to do so could strain relations and leave bad feelings on both sides. That would be a tragedy.