Rodrigo Duterte thanked China profusely on the day 600,000 shots from Sinovac Biotech arrived at an air base in Manila, the Philippines’ first doses of anti-coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines.

He heaped lavish praises on China and indicated his intention to travel to Beijing by the end of the year to personally thank Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

“China never asks for anything,” the firebrand leader said in a news conference following the arrival of the vaccines. “China is giving us everything and never asks anything from us, actually.”

He did not stop there. He took the opportunity to lambast China’s rival, the United States, the country’s oldest security ally and former colonial master.

“The Americans are different because they are demanding military bases,” he said.

“Do you know the direct consequence of that? If a war breaks out, and it will surely start, maybe in the center of war, maybe the Spratly, if the US has armaments here, we will be a target.”

Duterte said the country was “taking a very big gamble” by allowing  US presence in five local military bases — four air bases and an army jungle training base.

“The arms are stored everywhere in the Philippines. Maybe you are not aware of it. There are depots all around,” he said.

But he was not sure about the information. I’m warning you that if I get hold of information that nuclear armaments are here, brought by you, I will immediately ask you to go out and I will terminate the VFA,” he warned.

Duterte is widely known to give out inaccurate information from the day he assumed office in July 2016.

His statements about the Americans asking for a basing arrangement and storing armaments in depots all over the country are not outright false, however.

First, the US did not have military bases in the Philippines after 1992 when the last sailor left Subic Naval Base, the erstwhile home of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet. This was a year before the Senate voted to kick the bases out, rejecting the $200-million-a-year rent Washington was offering for its presence in two large bases.

Looking back three decades ago, it’s worth asking whether the United States really needed to have overseas bases in the Philippines and spend money for their upkeep. The bases also had political costs as the local community was opposed to American military presence due to crime, pollution, and other related social costs.

Back in the 1990s, Washington was closing down several bases in the continental United States to cut costs. The Americans also hastily abandoned Clark Air Base in Pampanga, which was buried under tons of volcanic debris after Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991.

The cost of rehabilitating Clark was so huge the Americans just left and turned it over to a government that was emerging from a political crisis and experiencing economic difficulties due to a debilitating power problem. There were 12 hours of daily outages due inadequate output from power plants.

The US has two large forward bases in Japan and South Korea where it does not have to pay rent. The geopolitical situation at that time was different as the US emerged as the sole superpower at the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

The US was not focused on the region. China was not a big threat at that time as it was re-educating its people after the deadly Tiananmen massacre. Its military was 50 years behind the US, which demonstrated its awesome firepower in the first Gulf War against Iraq after it invaded tiny Kuwait in August 1990.

The US does not need bases and up until now. It does not need one after it learned that it could request access to co-locate troops and equipment in a third country.

Ecuador was the model when the Americans were allowed to use airfields to help Latin American countries battle the drug cartel and eliminate opium plantations in Colombia.

A decade after the US bases were closed in the Philippines, the US realized it needed a strong presence in Southeast Asia after China occupied Mischief Reef in 1995.

In 2000, Rand Corp. came out with a study urging the US Air Force to seek locations in Southeast Asia to place fighters and bombers closer to an emerging flashpoint — South China Sea.

It suggested leasing a rock in the Philippines because US bases in South Korea, Japan and Guam were hours away from Taiwan Straits and the Spratlys.

But September 11 intervened, forcing the US to focus its energy and resources on the Middle East. 

The US slowly pivoted to Asia under the Obama administration. In 2014, President Barack Obama secured a deal with the Philippines to gain access to local air bases on temporary and rotating presence under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA.

It was the best deal. The US could land fighters, bombers and other aircraft, including its anti-submarine and surveillance planes, in four strategic air bases, anytime and for free.

Its forces were also allowed to preposition equipment and supplies in these bases, but the Philippines said these should not be offensive weapons. Rather, these should be for humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR) operations as well as spares for repair and maintenance of aircraft.

Duterte was wrong when he said the US was storing weapons and other armaments in depots around the country. Another military agreement, which the Philippines did not have with the United States, would allow stockpiling of weapons.

When the US had military bases, it could store weapons of mass destruction, which the Philippines could not validate because it had no capability to detect nuclear weapons. The US adopted a policy of neither confirming nor denying their presence.

The US was also bound by a Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed by US President Ronald Reagan and Sovier leader Mikhail Gorbachev, to destroy land-based ballistic missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,000 kilometers, launchers, and support structures.

In 2019, Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, walked away from the treaty and began developing and testing new missiles, accusing Russia of violating the accord. Also, China, not a party to the treaty, was rapidly building up nuclear weapons capability.

So Duterte should be comforted to know the US has no land-based ballistic nuclear missiles in the country. 

US nuclear-powered attack submarines carry nuclear-tipped cruise missiles as well as heavy bombers which can fly from the continental US to anywhere around the globe.

No US heavy bomber has landed on the Philippines since 2000 but there were several Los Angeles-class and Virginia-class fast-attack submarine visits in Subic.

At one point, a Virginia-class fast-attack submarine paid a port call in Subic while Philippine and Chinese coast guard vessels engaged in a standoff off Scarborough Shoal.

Before Trump left the White House, the Pentagon was shopping for locations to deploy nuclear missiles in the Indo-Pacific region, which US allies and partners opposed even if they were concerned with China’s growing military threat in the region.

The Japanese governor of Okinawa prefecture, a staunch anti-US bases advocate, and China-friendly Duterte have opposed plans to deploy nuclear or conventional missiles even before the US could request the deployment.

Australia and South Korea had also expressed opposition to missile deployments, which could be done by 2022 or 2023 after US tests and development are completed.

Duterte is right in opposing the possible deployment of nuclear missiles in the country, not only because it would be a magnet for potential air strikes from any US adversary but because of the country’s principle of denouncing nuclear weapons.

The Philippines is a signatory to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) treaty making the region a nuclear-weapons-free zone and urging nuclear weapons states, like China and the US, to avoid deploying weapons of mass destruction in the region.

The deployment of nuclear weapons in the region could further raise tensions in the region, particularly in the South China Sea, intensify the nuclear arms race, and lead to conflict.

At this point, however, Duterte’s fears are unfounded. The US has not deployed armaments in the country under VFA or EDCA as these two agreements do not allow the US to stockpile weapons.

It only exposes Duterte’s subservience to China. If he vehemently opposes US deployment of missiles, Duterte must also call out China, which had installed missile batteries on its artificial islands in the Spratlys. Those missiles directly threatened the Philippines.

Yes, China never asks anything because it takes without asking permission, like seizing control of Scarborough, ramming fishing boats in the Reed Bank and violating the country’s exclusive economic zone by sending survey ships unannounced to draw submarine routes in the Pacific.

An independent foreign policy does not look only at the fault of one country that is committed to help the Philippines in times of emergencies, while turning a blind eye on the other which has been bullying the country for a long time.

The Philippines must invoke its nuclear weapons-free policy but it must be applied to all nuclear weapons states, the US and China especially.