"These are positive signs in bilateral relations and economic cooperation."
Tension is brewing in Philippines-China relations. We’ve been reading a raft of bad news for China in local media of late. There’s the uproar over recent disclosure of the presence of a flotilla of Chinese vessels near Pag-asa island in the South China Sea that we claim as part of our Exclusive Economic Zone. There’s also the growing clamor for the Philippine government to crack down on the presence of illegal Chinese workers in the country. And certain quarters are also raising the alarm on alleged onerous loans from China for infrastructure projects they claim would inevitably draw the country into a “debt trap.”
Result: the 4th Quarter 2018 SWS survey conducted between Dec. 16 and 19 reveals that most respondents do not agree with the statement that “most of what the Chinese government wants to happen in the Philippines is good for Filipinos.” The survey found that 44 percent of Filipinos disagreed with the statement, 27 disagreed, and 29 percent remained undecided. This translates to an agreement score of -17, classified by the SWS as “moderately weak.”
What all this means is that bilateral relations appear to be under siege from various directions. But are all this enough to make us conclude that the Philippine government should reconsider its decision since 2016 to pivot to China and strengthen its ties with a next-door neighbor?
Our email inbox yielded last week a briefer on the forthcoming Second Belt and Road Forum, to be held in Beijing from April 25 to 27, that’s going to be attended by President Rodrigo Duterte, who attended the first one in 2017.
The theme of this year’s BRF is: “Belt and Road Cooperation: Shaping a Brighter Shared Future.” The events will include a leaders’ roundtable, a high-level meeting, thematic forums, a CEO conference and other side events. Representatives from over 100 countries, including about 40 leaders of foreign governments, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have confirmed their attendance. During this second forum, more agreements are expected to be signed, and more detailed guidance and documentation will be introduced, based on the last five years of experience.
The 2019 BRF expects participating parties to “further enrich the vision of advancing quality BRI cooperation by following the principle of consultation and cooperation for shared benefits, sticking to people-centered development philosophy, forging extensive partnerships, jointly promoting all-round connectivity, and implementing the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The second BRF will hopefully send a positive message of strengthening international economic cooperation, promoting global growth, and building an open global economy.”
And more: “With the concerted efforts of all the participating parties, the second BRF will deliver fruitful outcomes, create more driving forces for the economic growth of both participating countries and other countries concerned, provide more opportunities for international economic cooperation, and contribute more to the vision of a community with a shared future for mankind and a new type of international relations.”
China considers the Philippines, with our unique geographical position, as a natural partner in the Belt and Road Initiative. In fact, during the state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping last November 2018, a total of 29 cooperation documents were signed, including the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative.
The signing of this MOU is significant as it would serve to “inject fresh vitality to the bilateral relations and lift our economic and trade cooperation to a new level.”
The briefer points out that in the past two years, China has become the Philippines’ top trading partner, largest export market and largest source of imports. China Customs statistics reveal that bilateral trade volume in 2018 reached US$56 billion, a year-on-year increase of 8.5 percent. China imported more than 2 million tons of tropical fruits from the Philippines over the past two years. Philippine companies also sold US$124 million products in five days during the first China International Import Expo held in Shanghai last November.
Our own Department of Trade and Industry has also reported that China topped the list of foreign investors with P48.7 billion last year, equivalent to nearly 84 times increase from P575.8 million in 2017. China Telecom has won the bid of the third telecom operator license in the Philippines, and promised to invest about US$5 billion in five years. Hebei Iron & Steel Co. has indicated willingness to establish an Iron & Steel Plant in Cagayan de Oro worth US$3.5 billion. A Chinese enterprise, CNOOC, also wants to actively participate in putting up LNG projects in Batangas province.
We see all this as positive signs in bilateral relations and economic cooperation going forward. At the same time, serious efforts should be made for the two sides to thresh out differences in an atmosphere of good neighborliness and mutual benefit, and avoiding any rash actions that would put longstanding ties in jeopardy.