What lies ahead for the Philippines on China’s Belt and Road Initiative?


PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte sought warmer ties with China at the outset of his presidency, at a time when China was on its way with its ambitious global infrastructure program called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

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The Philippine government’s Build, Build, Build infrastructure program thus coincides with China’s BRI, which is seen by the Philippine government as among the available mechanisms in addressing the country’s infrastructure needs. To be sure, this funding support needs to be further activated beyond China’s earlier pledge of $24 million in investments and the memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with the Philippines that marked Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Manila last November.

Global think tank Nomura, in its April 2018 report, noted that the Philippines and Malaysia will have the most to gain among Southeast Asian economies from China’s BRI. With these in mind, how should the Philippines capitalize on the Belt and Road Initiative?

The BRI has two elements: the Silk Road Economic Belt, which is focused on linking China to Central Asia, Russia and Europe, through building land transportation routes; and the 21st Maritime Silk Road, which connects China to shipping routes starting from its coast, then passing through the contested South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, then leading up across the globe to Europe.

In a lecture in Beijing last August with Asian journalists, chief economist Chen Wenling of the China Center for International Economic Exchange (CCIEE) described the BRI as a “symbol of friendship, trade exchange and cultural exchanges” with other countries.

“We want to transfer our wealth. We want to transfer our great experience with our developments (with) these kinds of developments,” Ms. Chen said. “You as a host nation, if you want to develop, China is more than willing to help you to achieve that goal.”

But the gains have yet to be felt two years into Mr. Duterte’s presidency. George T. Barcelon, president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) at the time of this interview, noted, in particular, that port development projects have yet to be undertaken, the same point underscored by Nomura.

“I don’t see (an) immediate impact to us,” Mr. Barcelon said. “I don’t see too much on (the) maritime silk road” — which Mr. Xi himself had glowingly remarked on — “that will benefit us soon,” the business leader also said.