"Bilateral ties have markedly improved in the past two years."
We have been fortunate to take a close look at China in two separate visits—in April 2017 and in June this year. In these two media visits—the first took us from Guangzhou to various cities in the southwest and ended up in Shanghai, the second from Beijing and on to Harbin city near the border with Russia—we marveled both at the scale and pace of economic progress the country has been making since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. To think that from the ’50s to the ’60s and mid-’70s, China had witnessed both political upheavals and economic setbacks. It managed to surmount all this to emerge as the second-biggest economy in the world today after the United States.
That China is now an economic giant and at the same time a military power is a reality that we must learn to live with. That much is how longtime China resident Jaime FlorCruz, a former CNN Beijing Bureau chief and now Peking University professor, views our current ties with our neighbor to the west.
Take the controversy over the issue of joint exploration and development of oil and gas resources in the West Philippine Sea. While there are those who say that we should not enter into such an arrangement as this would negate our legal victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, there’s also the view, as articulated by FlorCruz, that the idea of joint exploration is “very complicated” as it involves legal, territorial and sovereignty issues.
“We really need the oil and gas. Our oil and gas supply is fast depleted and we need more. So for pragmatic reasons, we should be open to exploring the possibilities of doing it,” he pointed out in a recent TV interview.
FlorCruz believes that while the Hague ruling represents a “good legal and moral victory” for the Philippines, we should “take that out of the front and center of our relationship with China. We do not concede that it’s China’s, we still insist on the territory that it’s ours. Meanwhile, let’s explore the possibilities.”
The pragmatic approach appears to be working, from all indications.
In his remarks at the reception to mark the 69th Founding Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua observed that 2018 witnessed the sustained growth in Philippines-China relations, with the leaders of the two countries already having met at least five times on bilateral and multilateral occasions. The state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in late November further strengthened bilateral ties, with no less than 29 agreements signed during the occasion.
Since the second half of 2016, the two countries have revived a series of dialogue and consultation mechanisms in such areas as foreign affairs, defense, energy, economy and trade, agriculture, fisheries, science and technology. There have been also increasing interactions and exchanges between local governments, media agencies, universities, think tanks and cultural institutions.
The Philippines and China have also maintained good economic ties. Last year, trade volume reached $50 billion, which made China the Philippines’ No. 1 trading partner and import origin, and the fourth largest export market. Also in 2017, additional investments from China reached $53.84 million, representing a year-on-year increase of 67 percent. In the first five months of this year, China poured another investment of $165 million into the country.
China is also assisting the administration’s Build, Build, Build infrastructure program through outright grants, commercial loans and loans under official development assistance. So far, two bridges over Pasig River and the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project have already started. The two sides are pushing forward more big infrastructure projects, such as New Centennial Water Source-Kaliwa Dam, Subic-Clark Railway, Philippine National Railways South Long Haul and the Safe Philippines, with total volume surpassing US$ 7 billion.
The Philippines is also benefiting from increased tourist arrivals from China. In the first seven months in 2018, more than 760,000 Chinese tourists visited the country, representing a 40-percent year-on-year increase. More than 1.5-million Chinese tourists are expected to visit the Philippines this year, with the tourist influx expected to generate revenues of more than P32 billion.
Relations between the Philippines and China have deteriorated in recent years because of conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea. But the two countries agreed to initiate dialogue through the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism and Joint Coast Guard Committee, and explored practical cooperation in various areas, such as fisheries, maritime affairs, joint search and rescue, marine scientific research and environmental protection.
What the two sides are doing at this point is to properly manage differences in views through diplomacy and dialogue and to focus on cooperation in various fields of endeavor.
With the Duterte administration choosing to emphasize common interests rather than differences, bilateral ties have markedly improved in the past two years. For as long as we deal with the Chinese government on the basis of mutual benefit and mutual advantage, we can expect better prospects for trade and investments and development cooperation in the years ahead.