Rodrigo Duterte, a self-proclaimed socialist, has a mission: burn the country’s security alliance with the United States and pivot to China.

On Monday, he broke away from his prepared speech during his fifth State-of-the-Nation Address (SONA) before a joint session of Congress, to warn the United States against setting up a new military base in Subic, making an off-the-cuff comment that he had read somewhere about the plan.

There was once a huge military base in Subic Bay. It was the home of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet until November 1992 when the last American sailor left after a dozen senators voted to abrogate the US Military Bases Agreement.

The president was right but inaccurate. There was a plan for a new naval base but it was from the Philippine Navy, on a 100-hectare area that will become the future homeport for its first modern warship, a missile-capable, semi-stealth frigate.

Subic’s deep and natural harbor and covered location makes it a perfect home for the navy’s largest warships as some of its naval bases are heavily silted and need massive dredging to allow ships to dock at its piers.

But the plan has not left the drawing boards as the proposed site remained in limbo. It was waiting for a new investor to take over the facility.

At the moment, the Philippine Navy has a small facility in the sprawling former US navy base. It only uses parts of the Alava wharf, which has been privatized by the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) and the Sattler Pier as a naval supply depot.

A much larger area is still occupied by a South Korean shipyard, Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction Philippines (HHIC-Phil), which used to build container ships, oil-and-gas tankers and giant buoys.

It has stopped its operations, laying off more than 20,000 workers, even before the coronavirus pandemic, after it defaulted on $400 million in loans from a group of five domestic and Korean lenders in January 2019.

Two Chinese companies have expressed interest in taking over Hanjin’s operations, which was building 20 vessels in various stages of construction when it closed shop.

However, security officials had serious reservations on the entry of Chinese investors due to the strategic location of the facility. They wanted a more friendly country to operate Hanjin’s shipyard.

Before the coronavirus outbreak early this year, an American investor and an Australian shipbuilder were about to sign a $2-billion deal to take over the facility. Part of the deal was to provide a space for the Philippine Navy where it could put up a base.

Duterte was right but inaccurate again. The Americans wanted to return to Subic. But it will be under a commercial arrangement, not a military base although the biggest clients will be the US Navy.

The American investor, private equity Cerberus Capital Management, which specializes in distressed investing, wanted to use part of Hanjin’s facility as a ship repair facility for the US Navy. Its partner, Australian  shipbuilder Austal Ltd, planned to construct six off-shore patrol vessels for the Philippine Navy in the shipyard. The project will cost P30 billion.

The project will employ about 30,000 Filipinos, which the country needs at the moment as the pandemic has ruined its economy. The Philippines’ economy had contracted for the first time in more than 20 years in the first two quarters this year and more than 7 million workers lost their jobs and livelihoods after the government imposed a lockdown from mid-March to prevent transmission of the deadly coronavirus disease.

As a lawyer, the president is also aware that a foreign military base is not allowed under the 1987 Constitution. In Section 25 of the charter’s transitory provisions, the United States may only be allowed to put up a base under a treaty signed by the executive and ratified by the Senate.

Duterte must be well-informed about the American-Australian investment plan in Subic but he could have used the occasion to show his friendship with Beijing as tension builds up between the US and China over the South China Sea.

Washington has demonstrated its resolve to challenge Beijing’s excessive claims on the South China Sea by sending two aircraft carriers to patrol the strategic waterway.

The United States has also changed its policy on the maritime dispute from staying neutral on the issue to supporting the Philippines’ position after it won a legal battle against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague four years ago.

Australia has supported the US policy shift, calling China’s claims invalid and without legal basis. It has also joined the US, India and Japan in holding naval drills in the regional waters, sending strong signals to China, which has been using its force to coerce smaller neighbors.

Duterte has said the country would pursue an independent foreign policy, showing it was “not beholden or a pawn” to any powers, but his unwillingness to act against China and warning to the United States not to put up a base in the Philippines revealed where his loyalty lies.

It is unpatriotic for a leader to say he could not do something against China’s illegal activities even within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) when other smaller countries with inferior military capabilities compared with China continue to stand their ground against Beijing’s bullying.

It is even more unacceptable that he will prevent a long-time security ally from taking the cudgels for the country in the fight against China.

The United States does not need to put up a military base again anywhere in the country. It is even thinking of scaling back its presence in Japan and South Korea because it has realized these bases are sitting ducks in a missile exchange with its adversaries.

Under its “Regain the Advantage” plan, the US Indo-Pacfic Command in Hawaii has come up with plans to scatter its strike forces and forward bases by co-locating with allies and partners surrounding its potential enemies.

US Marines, naval strike forces and strategic bombers are more mobile and agile and ready to deliver lethal blows within days in the Indo-Pacific region. It has also rehearsed plans with other allies and partners to strike decisively against any hostile state.

Before Duterte was elected into office in 2016, the Philippines had been transformed into one huge American base under the 2013 Enhanced  Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

It has gained access to at least five local military bases — an army jungle training facility in Nueva Ecija and four strategic air bases in Pampanga, Palawan, Cebu and Misamis Oriental provinces.

But technically the EDCA allows the US military access to anywhere in the country. It used the civilian airport in Basco, Batanes as a pit stop for tactical fighters during the war in Iraq and Afghanistan during the time of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

US Navy maritime surveillance planes, like P3C Orion and P8 Poseidon, have been operating in the South China Sea from an airport in Clark Field, the former home of the 13th US Air Force.

It was also operating unmanned aerial vehicles or drones from an air base in Zamboanga City, where it had a small command and control center and communications facility within the AFP Western Mindanao Command.

Duterte probably wanted to shut down US military operations in the country before he steps down from office in 2022, thanking his friend Xi Jinping for his unfulfilled pledges to invest heavily in the country.

When Duterte made his first visit to China in 2016, Beijing promised to provide more than $24 billion in loans and investments, but until now the Philippines is still waiting for these projects to happen. Only two token bridge projects crossing the Pasig River and another water project in northern Luzon have actually started,

Early in his administration, when Duterte ranted about the US military unloading tanks somewhere during a military exercise, everyone was puzzled because there was no such activity going on.

But he used that episode to ban military drills with the US along the western coastline facing the South China Sea because he did not want to annoy China.

Then, he terminated in February the Philippines-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) on a very flimsy reason, when the visa of his former national police chief was revoked by the US State Department.

Let’s hope his rant against the US plan to set up a new military base in Subic would not be made as an excuse to abrogate EDCA. That could be his next target.