Sangley surprise



Following the staunch example of Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia are grabbing international headlines these days for their vigorous pushback against Chinese encroachments into waters and territories in the South China Sea (SCS) that the two countries claim as their own.

Malaysia enraged Beijing when it submitted to the United Nations on Dec. 12, 2019, its claim to an extended continental shelf in the SCS. Malaysia is unfazed by threats of Chinese reprisal, said Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah: “If we are to fear that, we will not submit our claim.”

Indonesia has likewise forcefully rejected Beijing’s sweeping claims over the SCS, specifically protesting against China’s poaching and trespassing near the Natuna Islands. The basis it cited for its diplomatic protest was, interestingly, the arbitral award won by a neighboring country—the Philippines—against China in July 2016, which invalidated Beijing’s so-called nine-dash-line claim over much of the SCS. “There is nothing to compromise when it comes to our nation’s territorial sovereignty,” vowed Indonesian President Joko Widodo. In a further ballsy move, Widodo visited the Natuna Islands along with top military officials, declaring: “Natuna is part of Indonesia’s territory, there is no question, no doubt.” As for fears that economic relations between China and Indonesia might be affected, Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s minister of maritime and investment affairs, was unusually blunt: “I would not sell our sovereignty for investment, never. I’m not stupid.”

In the Philippines, meanwhile—the country that otherwise holds the distinction of having won the first and so far only international arbitration award against China in the roiling SCS issue—the march is toward the opposite direction. Not only have Chinese nationals flooded the country in the hundreds of thousands to work in Chinese online casino companies; Chinese companies have also worked their way into massive infrastructure development projects with serious implications for national defense and security.

Overlooked during the holiday frenzy, for instance, was the specter of the Chinese government’s involvement in the P500-billion redevelopment and expansion of the strategically important Sangley Airport in Cavite.

Last Dec. 17, China Communications Construction Co. Ltd. (CCCC), one of China’s biggest infrastructure companies, and partner MacroAsia Corp., the publicly listed aviation services company owned by taipan Lucio Tan, submitted the sole bid for the planned Sangley Point International Airport by the Cavite government. With no competitors, the CCCC-MacroAsia venture will likely win the project, with the awarding possibly done as early as next week.

The prospect of a state-run Chinese company gaining a foothold in a vital location has, however, again stirred up security and defense concerns among observers, including military experts. Retired Navy chief Alexander Pama, in a Facebook post, said the idea was “highly objectionable and even worse!”

Naval and air military bases had long been positioned at Sangley Point precisely because of its strategic location, ideal for protecting the Philippines’ capital, explained Pama. “Only an idiot will not understand the adverse security implication to our country of this reported win of MacroAsia and its Chinese company partner to purchase Sangley airport. If this is implemented, it will be a dagger pointed to the heart of the nation!”

The fact that a Chinese company is about to make inroads into yet another sensitive Philippine infrastructure project may no longer be a surprise, but what’s surprising about the Sangley deal is the entity involved.

CCCC was blacklisted by the World Bank from 2011-2017 due to the questionable practices of its subsidiary China Road and Bridge Corp., said to have colluded on the bidding for the first phase of the Philippine National Roads Improvement and Management Program. The debarment was extended to CCCC and all firms that it directly or indirectly controls.

More startling, however, is this: It was also a CCCC subsidiary that helped build China’s artificial islands turned military outposts on territory seized from the Philippines. Manila, in effect, may end up rewarding the very same entity that had a direct hand in undermining the country’s interests and position in the SCS. As Greg Poling of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative pointed out in a tweet: “This is bonkers. Manila to award a multi-billion dollar airport project, and at a strategically vital location, to the same Chinese company that illegally built an artificial island at Mischief Reef in PH waters.”

Bonkers it does seem. As they say, curiouser and curiouser it gets…