Six months before Rodrigo Duterte steps down from power, he is gifting his favorite children, the military, with brand-new toys.

He has ordered the budget and management department to release more than P70 billion, allowing the defense department to go on a buying spree of warships and aircraft to upgrade the Philippines’s military capability and catch up with its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said P32 billion would go to additional S70i Black Hawk Polish combat utility helicopters to quicken the military’s tempo in defeating internal security threats from Maoist-led guerrillas and pro-Islamic State militant groups.

Another P30 billion will go to six Australian-built Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV) to enhance maritime domain awareness in the disputed West Philippine Sea.

Nearly P4 billion, representing 15 percent of the contract price for two South Korean manufactured guided-missile corvettes, were ordered released by the president to help increase the number of ocean-going vessels patrolling the vast maritime borders, and guard against poaching by foreign fishermen in the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

There were reports the president has authorized the release of another 15 percent down payment for a P12-billion contract to buy 16 medium-lift Mi17 Russian helicopters.

These are modest capability upgrades replacing aging aircraft and vessels in the military inventory.

Until now, the Philippines could be listed among countries in the region that still operate World War 2-vintage warships and Vietnam War-era helicopters.

Since the revised military modernization law was passed during Benigno Aquino’s presidency, all brand-new acquisitions were to retool the military, replacing mothballed equipment, like Bell UH-1H Huey helicopters, F-5A/B fighters, and old US Navy destroyer escorts and minesweepers.

The military has to acquire two must-buy equipment to truly catch up with its neighbors in the region – a multi-role fighter and a conventional diesel-electric submarine.

But there could be a heavy political price for a real multi-role fighter.

The Philippines has already acquired a squadron of South Korean-made FA-50 light training fighters to help transition air force pilots to real fighters, like US F16s.

Washington has offered to sell six latest-model F16s for $2.4 billion, including air-to-air and air-to-ground missile systems.

But the Philippines has allocated only $1.3 billion for a multi-role fighter project. The funding could only cover two F16s.

The Air Force has recommended to acquire instead a squadron of Swedish Gripen fighters which are more affordable but could be lesser in terms of performance than the F16s, which other Southeast Asian neighbors like Indonesia and Singapore operate.

But the Philippines could still acquire the F16 multi-role fighters if the United States, the country’s oldest and only military ally, will agree to help through its Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program and subsidize almost half of the cost.

But it will come at a big political cost and a potential backlash on the country’s national security.

Duterte must think twice and weigh the political consequences of allowing the US to help acquire the F16s.

If the US government agrees to help subsidize the commercial sale of the F16s, it will cement the alliance further.

But, at what cost?

Washington might ask for some political concessions in exchange for shouldering almost half of the cost of the fighters.

The US needs more access to local bases for its army and air force to spread out its military forces, which are heavily concentrated in Japan and South Korea, to Southeast Asia.

It will give the US more flexibility, expanding its footprint in the region and lessening vulnerability to an attack from its potential adversary in the region.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin unveiled this year a new integrated deterrence strategy to counter China’s rise and creeping influence in the region.

The US Congress has approved an ambitious five-year Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), a follow-up funding to the Trump era’s Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA).

Washington planned to spend $5 billion next year to set up an early warning system to guard against ballistic missile attacks on Guam, build more ships and planes, and preposition equipment and supplies in depots and logistics hubs across Southeast Asia.

The Philippines, being an ally, is the most logical location not only to preposition supplies and equipment, but as a launching pad for military operations in the region, including the volatile Taiwan Straits.

As part of the integrated deterrence strategy, the US is looking for locations where it could deploy short- to medium-range conventional and nuclear missiles.

Again, the Philippines could be an ideal location for missile deployment. A few billion dollars of investment to help the Philippines acquire six F16s is a drop in the bucket for a much longer-term access to local bases to preposition equipment and possibly missiles.

Next year, the two allies will negotiate and possibly ink a new intelligence and information-sharing deal as well as additional access to local bases, expanding the alliance and returning to pre-pandemic levels.

It also came after Duterte took back a letter informing the US of his intention to scrap the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

As the two allies got back in each other’s arms, expect more robust bilateral ties as the US steps up activities to bring the rivalry with China to the next level.

It could likely subsidize the F16 project to gain more concessions from the Philippines.

Duterte, who is leaving office in June 2022, must play his cards well or face more aggressive actions from China.

His rapprochement strategy with China did not turn out well as Beijing continues to harass local fishermen and even public vessels in the disputed area in South China Sea.

Chinese coast guard vessels water cannoned and blocked two civilian wooden-hulled vessels from delivering supplies to BRP Sierra Madre, which had run aground in Ayungin shoal. It has deployed hundreds of militia vessels to Union Banks.

The Philippines could see more aggressive actions from China if it gave the US military more access to its territory.

In 2013, when the Philippines brought an arbitration case against China to nullify its excessive nine-dash-line claim on the South China Sea, Beijjng responded by building seven artificial islands in the Spratlys.

Perhaps, China can do more to threaten and intimidate the Philippines if it agrees to give more access to US forces next year or in the future.

The F16 deal is a tempting offer but it could anger China and force them to take more aggressive measures in the South China Sea.

In the end, it could be a win-lose situation. The Philippines gets its F16s but at a stiffer political price with really no guarantee of US support against Chinese harassment.

Remember, the Philippines can only invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty in case of an armed attack against a public vessel.

The US can only issue statements warning or condemning China’s gray zone tactics.

It cannot do anything if local fishermen and oil exploration activities are harassed by China.

The consequences could be worse in exchange for six F16s.

If the military wants the F16s, it must pay the price without the US help. The strings attached to the fighters might strangle the country.