Is President Rodrigo Duterte really breaking away from America, as many commentators and analysts have wondered?
As this column argued last month (“Duterte’s tough-talk foreign policy,” Sept. 29), the administration has been sending mixed signals to keep the big powers guessing, and thus get some advantage in obtaining concessions and recalibrating relations.
Well, if the US alliance is not yet history, what might it look like after Duterte’s redo? Four points:
The alliance will continue
Yes, it’ll stick around for the foreseeable future. President Duterte has said he’d like the 65-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty with America to continue, despite his colorful remarks about its leader.
And that should pose no problem in forging ties with Russia and China. After all, Washington is building defense cooperation and holding war games with New Delhi and Hanoi, which have long, strong links with Moscow, including arms purchases and ventures.
More crucial, the US has to defend the Philippines from any hostile takeover, however disgusting our leader’s language may be. Plainly, it cannot allow the archipelago to become a vast military platform for a rival big power, as the country would be for America under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The EDCA allows US forces to increase rotations in the Philippines and make use of our bases.
Bottom line: Since America has to keep the Philippines out of enemy control, Duterte has no reason to refuse US protection and scrap the MDT — as long as it does not make the Philippines a threat and a target for rival powers.
The EDCA must be scaled down
It is the EDCA, not the MDT, that puts the country in the missile sights of America’s adversaries, especially the People’s Liberation Army. Increased rotations of nuclear-armed warships, submarines, and aircraft under the 2014 executive agreement are magnets for PLA attack, along with the five bases made available for US use.
Nuclear-capable cruise missiles launched from our territory can hit most of China, plus its vital sea lanes in the South China Sea, where four-fifths of its oil imports pass. For its part, the PLA has hundreds of projectiles on the Chinese coast and inland, ready for devastating preemptive or retaliatory strikes at American forces.
With such destructive might on both sides, China and the US “have an incentive to strike enemy forces before being struck by them,” according to the US Army-sponsored RAND Corporation report “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable” < http://www.manilatimes.net/the-war-report-president-duterte-must-read/280564/ >.
So those escalating rotations of the Seventh Fleet must come down. But can the US still defend the Philippines from invasion with EDCA truncated? Yes, since American arms can inflict massive losses on an invading armada even from outside the country.
What about aerial and projectile attack on the Philippines? Such a threatened or actual bombardment would trigger a hail of cruise missiles decimating PLA batteries and airfields. (If Uncle Sam doesn’t hit back, then we might just capitulate — and become the vast enemy platform Washington never wants to see.)
As for asserting our territorial claims and economic zones, US forces in the country would only help if we are attacked. So we have to be crazy enough to ignite a shooting war with China before America helps. Not a good deterrent to encroachments and bullying, as we learned the hard way in Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal.
Only one faraway base for America
Washington would almost surely push for access to bases, arguing that it cannot counter China’s growing might in the South China Sea, with the Seventh Fleet operating and supplied from distant Guam, Hawaii, and Okinawa.
Fair enough. But we cannot let them use the five bases offered under the EDCA. Three are airfields right next to Cebu City, Cagayan de Oro, and Puerto Princesa, and sharing runways with their airports. The other two in Nueva Ecija and Pampanga, in the middle of Central Luzon ricelands.
If these bases are attacked, collateral damage on our land and people would be immense. If they are nuked, the fallout would contaminate vast croplands. Frankly, then-President Benigno Aquino 3rd committed an act of treason by agreeing to expose millions of Filipinos to such threats, and with zero guarantee of US support in maritime disputes, unlike Washington’s ironclad pledge to Tokyo in its frictions with Beijing.
If America needs a base, it must be far from cities and farmland. One possible site is Balabac Island, off the southern tip of Palawan. The base would need to erected from scratch, but the money Uncle Sam was going to spend on facilities for five bases should be enough for one. And anti-missile defenses for one base is far less costly.
Balabac may also attract a port developer, which could set up both a naval supply and maintenance base and a container terminal, where vessels traversing the Pacific can load or unload cargo coming from or bound for Southeast Asia. They would save on time, fuel and higher harbor charges vis-a-vis sailing to Singapore or Bangkok, the current maritime hubs.
US military aid must be A2/AD
Last item on the alliance wishlist is A2/AD: anti-access/area denial weaponry to monitor and deter intrusions. The Washington defense think tank Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments urged the US government to help build up the Philippines’ A2/AD capabilities to counter China.
In its 2012 study, “The Geostrategic Return of the Philippines,” the CSBA recommended marine surveillance planes to watch the seas, anti-ship coastal defenses to deter intruders, and aerial defense systems to defend the anti-ship missiles.
No more unarmed second-hand ships and outdated training jets, which the PLA would just laugh at. We need planes to eyeball our waters and help in disaster relief; supersonic missiles like the BrahMos, which Vietnam is buying from India; and anti-aircraft guns and rockets.
Those are the four points of a truly enhanced defense cooperation with America.