By Herman Tiu Laurel
As New Year’s Day 2021 dawned we received the news in Chinese characters in our Messenger inbox. Using Google Translate, we got this headline, “China Harbour won the bid for the Philippine railway project.” The report, which was dated January 1, 2021, read:
“On December 29, 2020, China Harbour Corporation won the bid for the Subic-Clark railway project in the Philippines. The owner of the project is the Department of Transportation of the Philippines. The main project content is the construction of a 71-km single-track standard gauge freight railway, and the procurement and commissioning of locomotives. The project adopts an EPC general contract for design, procurement, and construction, and the construction period is 42 months.”
This Subic-Clark railway is a P 45-billion (nearly $ 1-billion) undertaking, which is funded by a low-interest loan from China. It is one of the many projects agreed upon between President Xi Jinping and President Rodrigo Duterte in the course of the several reciprocal visits between the two heads-of-state since 2016 that amounts to $25-billion.
In a 2016 report, Department of Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez broke down the $ 25-billion assistance from China to the Philippines as follows “… $15 billion accounts for company-to-company deals, while $9 billion pertains to loans from credit facilities to be made available to businesses, development projects, and infrastructure, among others.”
Even at the height of the pandemic, the activities and developments in the $ 25-B cooperation deals between China and the Philippines have kept chugging along. Sadly, fault-finders such as the US-inspired and Singapore-based Channel News Asia tried to demoralize Filipinos with a feature entitled “They’re Talking Duterte for a Ride” alleging non-delivery of the$ 25-billion projects, which is based largely on interviews only detractors of the projects.
By way of example, the CNA-biased documentary cited the P12.2-billion Kaliwa Dam project, highlighting the parochial concern of 1,000 Dumagat families and the local priest whose lives would only be improved by relocation and modernization. It is ironic that the local priest whined about “indigenous lands” when the Catholic Church had appropriated such into “friar lands” centuries ago. All of them clearly impervious to the water woes of 14-million Metro-Manila residents
On Dec. 21, 2020 more positive news filtered in: “’China, Philippines sign commercial contracts to build 3 more bridges in Manila…in the capital Metro Manila to help improve traffic congestion… The three bridges, which will cost around $240 million, is a government-to-government cooperation project between the two countries to be bankrolled by China. The construction of the bridges is expected to kick off in the first half of 2021.”
They are: (a) “the North and South Harbor Bridge in the port area of Manila to accommodate added 5,800 vehicles per day. (b) the two-way four-lane Eastbank-Westbank Bridge connecting Pasig City and Cainta City over the Manggahan Floodway for more than 18,000 vehicles daily, and (c) the two-way two-lane Palanca-Villegas Bridge over the Pasig, expected to carry over 2,900 vehicles daily, part of the Twelve Priority Bridges Under the Pasig-Marikina River and Manggahan Floodway Bridges Project."
On Dec. 14, 2020, the Chinese Embassy also announced the grant of $ 60-million for the Philippines’ Davao River Bridge project. Located in the Bucana District at the mouth of the Davao River, the two-way four-lane bridge will be 477 meters long with the total route’s length of 1,340 meters. The bridge will connect the coastal roads while spanning the east and west banks of the river.
Earlier in November, 2020, Ambassador Huang Xilian went on a video inspection of the on-going construction of two bridges – the Binondo-Intramuros and Estrella-Pantaleon Bridge—that are key components of the Pasig River twelve bridge projects.
The Ambassador informed the public that construction of these two bridges continued at 80% pace despite the pandemic and only 8% of the construction staff are Chinese nationals. More importantly, the Ambassador said that he expects the bridges to provide actual services starting between the first and second quarters of 2021.
In its January 2021 website report, the DoTr provided updates on two major multi-billion dollar rail projects funded by China. The first is the 639-km railway system running from Manila to Legazpi, Albay and Matnog, Sorsogon, with a spur line to Batangas City, Batangas. The project was already 18.56% complete as of July 2020, and the contract for the delivery of new trains has already been signed.
The second is the Mindanao Railway Phase 1 (Tagum-Davao-Digos) that is presently in pre-construction works and ROW acquisition. The railway, which will stretch across 100 kilometers of an 830-km loop (some projections estimate the loop to be as long as 2,000 kms.), is targeted to be partially operable by the fourth quarter of 2022. China is committed to funding the gigantic project.
This article cannot cover the entire gamut of projects funded by the $ 25-billion agreement and MOUs. Already, however, the above-cited projects bring the $ 25-billion commitment already close if we include ongoing private sector projects – such as, the Dito Telecoms $ 5.1-billion investment, the $ 1-billion Batangas steel mills and $ 4-billion Mindanao steel mill joint ventures – whose combined investments already exceed $ 10-billion slated to break ground until Covid-19 intervened.
Moreover, there is the P30-billion SAFE Philippines project, which will first be implemented in the National Capital Region and in Davao, that put up around 12,000 cameras, strategically located in areas where crime, traffic, floods, and fires are prevalent. Secretary Eduardo Año expects the project to reduce crime rate by 15% and increase response rate of law enforcers and responders by 25%. These include police and fire personnel who respond during natural and human-induced emergencies.
Unfortunately, there has been obstructionism to delay, if not scuttle, the PHL-China cooperation projects. Some politicians harp over national security concerns, such as Huawei’s presence, but everyone should take the cue from Germany which has refused to ban Huawei. And now, Swedish multinational Ericsson threatens to leave Sweden if it continues to ban Huawei.
Under Trump, the U.S. waged through Western and its related media networks a global negative campaign of disinformation and sabotage of China’s soft-power diplomacy and Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) cooperation and development projects. However, we now see the collapse of these US efforts as even the incoming US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly stated that “decoupling” is unrealistic.
President Duterte has been right all along to persist and persevere in joint development efforts with China. These now sustain our hopes of riding the wave of China’s success in weathering the pandemic and being the first major economy to recover and achieve a fantastic projected growth trend of 8.1% for 2021 and the decade to come.
Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez has noted that the projects also include economic zones, agricultural joint ventures and development projects, tourism, industrial park development, aqua-culture development and a wide range of other projects that we cannot include in this short report. Suffice it to say at the moment in the PHL-China “Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation” will clearly meet, if not exceed, its original commitment.
(Herman Tiu Laurel, educator, writer and columnist, satellite-cable TV and radio broadcaster, is the founder of Phil-BRICS Strategic Studies think-tank that promotes the Filipino’s understanding of the multipolar world concept.)