Should you be scared if you live near bases to be used by American forces?
Under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the United States has chosen five Philippine facilities for US forces rotating in the country: Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, Lumbia Air Base in Mindanao, Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu, Basa Air Base in Pampanga, and Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija.
The first three bases are right next to airports serving Puerto Princesa, Cagayan de Oro (CDO), and Metro Cebu. Basa is about 40 km from Angeles and San Fernando, Pampanga. Fort Magsaysay is 25 km from Cabanatuan City — less than the distance from Elliptical Road in Quezon City to Alabang.
Since they would support American forces potentially hostile to China, these facilities would be among potential targets of the People’s Liberation Army’s ballistic missiles. The PLA has hundreds of rocket batteries along the Chinese coast, including dozens of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) whichcan strike anywhere in the Philippines and the South China Sea with nuclear or conventional warheads.
Within the 10t-year life of EDCA, which can be extended by mutual agreement, conflict between America and China may happen not only over South China Sea frictions, but also the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing; war on the Korean Peninsula, and Chinese invasion or intimidation of Taiwan, among others.
Hence, even if the Philippines has no vital interests in Taiwan, Korea or the Senkakus, the country could be dragged into battles over those flashpoints because five of our bases host and support US forces which may be deployed against China. So if the PLA attacks those bases in retaliation or pre-emptive action, the Philippines cannot claim it is a neutral nation which should be spared from war.
So what should communities and businesses near the bases worry about?
The nightmare of nuclear attack
The biggest fear, of course, is nuclear attack. A small nuke like the Hiroshima bomb, with its explosive force of 15,000 tons of dynamite (15 kilotons), would totally devastate the main facilities of these bases, with structures collapsed and severe burns inflicted as far as two kilometers from the blast site, according to the NukeMap simulation by nuclearsecrecy.org.
That means the Puerto Princesa, CDO and Mactan civilian airports and runways next to air bases would be destroyed, along with buildings and homes within the 2-km radius. Radioactive contamination would reach many times farther, especially if detonation is close to the ground, and strong winds blow debris over long distances.
That swathe of radioactivity would add to the casualties of the blast itself. The contamination would also render vast city and countryside areas uninhabitable, and its waters and industrial and agricultural production dangerous for thousands of years.
Would China fire nukes? Not if it has enough conventional warheads to get through anti-missile defenses and destroy the bases. But the PLA may be able to use use only a limited number of MRBMs on Philippine bases, due to countless other targets elsewhere. Then the Chinese may use nukes, so that even if just a few rocket get through, it would be enough to neutralize the bases.
The other consideration would be the threat of nuclear retaliation if Beijing unleashes atomic weapons against Philippine bases used by US forces. This is thankfully uncharted territory in warfare. Still, one can assume that America’s President and Commander-in-Chief would think a thousand times before allowing nuclear attack on military targets in the Philippines escalate into a nuclear exchange with China.
Or as Japanese strategists wondered during the Cold War: Would the US endanger Los Angeles by retaliating against a Russian or Chinese nuclear attack on Tokyo? If such doubts trouble the Japanese, they should be even more worrisome for Filipinos asking if the US would risk LA for CDO.
The effect on travel, trade and security
Even if nukes were not in the picture, the threat of conventional attack is fearsome enough. Add to that the economic and business impact due to the elevated risk ascribed to the five bases.
Whenever Beijing and Washington rattle sabers for whatever reason, war fears would flare up, and with it the concerns both in the country and across the globe over possible military action against American forces and the facilities they use in the Philippines.
For instance, if Beijing blockades or seizes the Senkakus (Diaoyutai to the Chinese), depending on the intensity of American and Japanese reaction, the perceived risk to aircraft serving Cebu, Cagayan de Oro and Puerto Princesa may rise.
That could lead to reduced travel, diversion of trade to alternative shipment points, and higher insurance rates. If this happens quite frequently, foreign buyers may consider buying goods from other places, or moving their factories there.
Repeatedly rising risk perceptions would also impact property values, especially in areas facing high probability of damage if bases are bombed.
As for domestic security, the bases and nearby areas would likely see increased Chinese intelligence-gathering activity, by satellite imaging, cyber-snooping, and agents on the ground. In the event of Sino-American hostilities, saboteurs may join the fray.
The Philippine government would need to consider and cover the cost of adverse economic repercussions from allowing US forces to use the five bases, and the additional security and counter-intelligence measures likely to be needed.
Come June, the next President would need to ponder these inherited security issues, which could get even more intense if a hawkish leader like Donald Trump wins the US elections in November.
Also thinking hard would be Filipinos living, working and doing business in Cebu, CDO, Puerto Princesa, Cabanatuan, Angeles and San Fernando, and nearby areas.
The overarching question: Will America’s ships, subs, planes and troops in the country and near five major urban centers, make the Philippines safer and more secure?