OUR Tuesday column argued that US President Donald Trump invited President Rodrigo Duterte despite the storm of American liberal and media protest, at the Pentagon’s behest, to get Duterte’s nod for full implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
The Edca would escalate rotations of US forces and give them access to our bases. And that capability to host and provision massive military assets, especially air and naval, may be sorely needed if America goes to war in Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear missile program.
Now, should President Duterte fall for Trump’s charm and allow American might to set up in the archipelago for possible conflict?
This issue is way above our paygrades, of course. Our elected President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines has the full mandate to decide what the country’s foreign and defense policies should be in the catastrophic event that war breaks out in the Korean Peninsula.
Thankfully, in deciding how the Philippines should act and position ourselves if things get bloody between Pyongyang and Washington, President Duterte knows full well how bad such a war could get for Asia, certainly far more than the billionaire who phoned him last Saturday.
For starters, US airstrikes on Pyongyang’s nukes and rocket facilities would almost surely trigger retaliation by the forces of leader Kim Jong-un. Projectiles and artillery would rain upon South Korea, especially the urban agglomeration centered on Seoul just a few dozen miles from North Korean troops, tanks, artillery and rockets massed along the 38th Parallel dividing the peninsula. Defense experts also fear missile attacks on the US base in Okinawa, and airfields of the Japanese air force, expected to back America.
How China and Russia respond would decide how much wider the conflict gets. Beijing is keen to prevent total defeat or collapse of the North, which would likely spawn a unified Korea allied with America and Japan, and probably hosting US forces close to the Chinese border.
And if war goes nuclear, which Kim has threatened to do from the start, the radioactive fallout could contaminate vast waters and lands, depending on Pacific winds, which are building strength as the June-September typhoon season nears.
Caught in the middle of that cauldron would be 60,000 overseas Filipinos in South Korea, and some 300,000 in Japan. Plainly, the Philippines is not equipped to assist or evacuate most of those compatriots, and would need to get massive help from other countries, most probably Japan, China and America.
Should we dance the Edca?
This war scenario is the nightmare President Duterte and the National Security Council need to ponder and prepare to face, if things go bad. And their deliberations may get even more urgent if Duterte accepts Trump’s invitation to visit the White House, or gets more calls from his phone after the Saturday night ring.
With the Edca, the Pentagon would pre-position and amply provision massive assets much closer to the theater of battle than the Guam, Hawaii, California, and other bases where they are now.
The US may be most keen to station warplanes, considering the five airbases it initially selected for use under the Edca, none of which are for naval vessels: Mactan near Cebu, Puerto Princesa, right next to its newly upgraded airport, Cagayan de Oro, San Fernando in Pampanga, and Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija.
But President Duterte has openly opposed the Edca, even threatening to abrogate it, as he certainly can without congressional concurrence. The Supreme Court ruled that it is an executive agreement not needing Senate ratification.
And when Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced in January that the US would build facilities in some bases over the next three years, Duterte himself squelched such talk when he fumed over the rumored entry of US nukes in the country.
So, despite sure-fire outrage among American liberals and media incensed over Duterte, the Donald gives him the ultimate presidential accolade, in the Pentagon’s hope to improve the Edca’s chances of instant implementation
Now, should Digong go along? And what should he ask in return for support?
The first thing to consider, of course, is the risk to the country of hosting forces sure to be targeted by an enemy brandishing nuclear-tipped projectiles. North Korea has a truck-mounted intermediate range missile, the Hwasong-10, also known as BM-25 or Musudan. It is being developed to have a range of 4,000 km, encompassing the Philippines from North Korea. But it is still being tested and not yet fully deployed.
While attack from Pyongyang seems unlikely, there is the danger of China entering the fray to prevent total defeat or collapse of the North. If that happens, then the wider conflict could make US forces in the country magnets for Chinese attack. And as the US Army-sponsored “War with China” report by the RAND think tank argued, if there are hostilities with the People’s Liberation Army, prime PLA targets would be aircraft carriers and air bases used by US forces.
Besides the danger of attack on the Philippines, another consideration is geopolitics. How will America respond if we don’t join it in battle? And if we do, how will China react?
On balance, China can make more trouble and offer far greater benefits for us than America, now and in the future, so geopolitics slightly favors Beijing.
The third consideration is the fate of tens of thousands of Filipinos in Korea and Japan. We need massive aid to assist and possibly evacuate them. And we should probably go along with the nation or nations offering the most aid to safeguard our OFWs.
If we do support Uncle Sam—and we may have to anyway under the Mutual Defense Treaty—Duterte should set three conditions for hosting American assets: No nuclear weapons in the country. Clear limits to where US forces go, to contain collateral damage from attack. And mountains of aid, to get ships and planes for Filipinos in Korea.
Pray we never need a single ship or plane. So help us God.