By Getsy Tiglao
A reinvigorated Philippines was on full display in Beijing last Sunday as President Rodrigo Duterte and Russian President Vladimir Putin were seated side by side as guests of honor at the welcome banquet hosted by China’s President Xi Jinping. It was superb optics for Duterte who only seven months ago had declared the country’s separation from its traditional ally, the United States.
About 29 world leaders were in China for the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation hosted by Xi, a trade alliance that intends to integrate markets and economies in Asia with those in Europe, Middle East, and Africa. The initiative was inspired by the ancient “Silk Road” trading route that spanned China all the way to the Mediterranean.
While the forum was open to almost all nations, it seems a special place had been set aside for the Philippines’ fiery president, who stunned the world in October, 2016, when he told a business forum in Beijing: “America has lost me. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”
True to his word, Duterte will visit Russia on May 25 in another historic move that would have rocked the old Washington, DC were it not reeling from its diminished status in the world. Fortunately for the Philippines, too, US President Donald Trump is supportive of Duterte and in fact had sought his help in talking with China about handling the recalcitrant North Korea.
The Belt and Road Forum has been described as the Chinese version of the Group of 20 with a bit of the Davos-World Economic Forum thrown in, creating according to Xi, “a big family of harmonious co-existence.” It was created back in 2013 but the Philippines wasn’t invited to join during the time of the rabidly pro-American tag team of Benigno Aquino III and his foreign secretary Albert del Rosario.
China’s long and rich history is mostly unknown to Filipinos, many of whom grew up on shallow Hollywood portrayals of the Chinese (not to mention Russians) as cardboard villains. The warming of ties between China and the Philippines is an opportune time to get to know this giant neighbor who has been painted in such negative light by Western media.
The name Belt and Road is a nod to China’s historic trade caravan that travelled through the continents from Asia to Europe. The multicultural merchants and the hardy camels stopped at key points along the way to buy and sell prized goods such as jade, gold, tea, spices, porcelain, and the lustrous cloth called silk.
Today’s China plans to build a modern version of this trade diplomacy through expanded land routes, which means the building of more rail networks, bridges, roads and highways. The Belt and Road initiative will assist in financing these crucial infrastructure in order to improve interconnection and boost trade. But where does that leave the archipelagic Philippines, which has no land connection with any Asian country?
The answer is in the complementary “sea version” of the Belt and Road, the Maritime Silk Road, which will invest in the development of port networks in the South China Sea, South Pacific Ocean, and the Indian Ocean. Hopefully, this initiative will also make provisions for the acquisition of ships especially roll-on, roll-off vessels that can carry passengers, cargo, and vehicles. Interconnection among the country’s numerous islands via sea vessels is seen as crucial to national development.
China has pledged at least $124 billion to finance projects under the alliance. Its initiative couldn’t have come at a better time for the Philippines, which only recently launched its massive ‘Build, Build, Build’ infrastructure program.
As expected, the attack dogs from the Western media were quick to pounce on the country’s plan to upgrade its infrastructure, saying that the country was in danger of being heavily indebted to China. But only 20 percent of the P8-trillion budget for the infrastructure program will be in the form of foreign debt because the bulk of the budget will come from government appropriations and domestic loans.
There will be no heavy loans, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez assured the critics. Instead, the Duterte government will take advantage of the concessional loans being offered by friendly countries such as China. These loans, also known as Official Development Assistance (ODA), have an average interest rate of 1.54 percent compared with the 6.31 percent for foreign bonds, which the previous administration had preferred.
The Philippines is already enjoying the benefits of its independent foreign policy. China has committed at least $3.4 billion in ODA to finance three infrastructure projects in the Philippines the North-South Railway Project South Line; the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project in Cagayan and Kalinga provinces; and the New Centennial Water Source-Kaliwa Dam Project.
In addition, China has pledged $75 million to build under a grant assistance (which is not a loan) two bridges in Metro Manila to help ease the traffic congestion. These are the Binondo-Intramuros and the Estrella-Pantaleon bridges that will cross the Pasig River. The plan is implement these initial projects within the year after the feasibility studies are completed.
Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana noted that the bilateral mechanism for trade and economic cooperation is functioning again after being “frozen” or in a “state of hiatus.” After all, who needs a confrontation when both sides can have a “win-win cooperation”?