Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Manila this week has produced more deals on economic cooperation with the Philippines but analysts are sceptical about whether this will translate into benefits for the impoverished archipelago.
In 2016, during his high-profile trip to Beijing, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte secured US$24 billion in investment, credit and loan pledges from Xi to upgrade infrastructure.
This included US$15 billion worth of investment projects and US$9 billion in loans.
Trade secretary Ramon Lopez said at the time that US$5.5 billion would be spent on transport and infrastructure, US$1 billion on a hydropower station, US$700 million for a steel plant and US$780 million on a port in Davao, where Duterte was mayor for two decades.
In exchange, Duterte has jettisoned Manila’s chances of regaining control of islands in the South China Sea, or the West Philippine Sea to Filipinos.
A Manila-based academic Richard Heydarian said Duterte had been “soft peddling on the South China Sea disputes and toeing the Chinese line” while also failing to secure the investment promised two years ago.
Duterte’s policy has received warm words from China.
Xi wrote for the Chinese state media: “Since President Duterte took office, China and the Philippines have re-engaged in dialogue and consultation for the proper handling of the South China Sea issue. Our relations have now seen a rainbow after the rain.”
He was referring to the previous president, Benigno Aquino, who worked with Vietnam and the US to challenge growing Chinese maritime dominance.
In 2012, China seized the Philippine-occupied Scarborough Shoal after a prolonged standoff.
Aquino launched a formal case against China’s expansionism at the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, which invalidated Beijing’s claims.
China refused to recognise the verdict and Duterte has largely failed to mention it, apparently in the hope of receiving billions of dollars of loans and investment from Beijing.
In major speeches, Xi has portrayed China as a benign, law-abiding nation and he might have been less confident in this assertion if Duterte had not buried the 2016 verdict.
Duterte’s domestic popularity has held up despite his numerous diplomatic gaffs and the thousands of deaths during his brutal “war on drugs”.
But polling suggests public reservations about his China policy with more than 80 per cent of respondents to a Social Weather Station survey this week saying he should oppose Beijing’s militarisation of its concrete islands in the South China Sea.
At last week’s Asean summit in Singapore, the 73-year-old Duterte said China “is already in possession” of the region and that he opposed military exercises by the US and anything else that could provoke Beijing.
The former lawyer’s formative student years coincided with the disastrous US war in Vietnam, giving him a lifelong distrust of the Philippines’ former colonial master.
His knowledge of Washington’s imperial crimes in his homeland has given Duterte the intellectual justification to reorientate Manila’s foreign policy towards Beijing.
The populist president speaks highly of how Xi “understands” Philippine problems and is “willing to help” and his gratitude to China, which he needs “more than anybody else”.
In return, Duterte is also praised by the Chinese establishment.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last month said: “President Duterte is the most respected and most important friend for President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people.”
Whether this translates into economic development is another matter.
During his visit to Manila, Xi oversaw 29 agreements on education cooperation and industrial park development.
But Xi’s remarks in Manila were light on promises related to mega-deals.
Heydarian, author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific, said the deals were too vague to offer proper change. He opined: “Very few of them have anything to do with major implementation of infrastructure projects.”
Xi also signed a controversial deal to jointly explore the South China Sea’s oil and gas.
Projects like a high-speed railway on impoverished Mindanao, the second-largest island in the archipelago, are part of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and have uncertain returns.
The proposed global transport network has already saddled Chinese banks with unreliable loans and they may be cautious about channelling billions into Mindanao, home to a decades-long Islamist insurgency where Manila’s authority is often fragile.
It also appears that Duterte has already given China all it needs in the South China Sea and his compliance may guarantee Beijing feels little pressure to speed up investment.
Some observers might welcome Xi’s failure to follow through on his infrastructural projects when they see the vast debts Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and other nations have acquired after signing up to the BRI.
However, if Duterte cannot point to tangible gains from his China policy, voters might question the wisdom of abandoning their territorial claims to the islands off the Philippine coast.
Duterte’s campaign threat to retake the Chinese-occupied Spratly Islands near the Philippines on a jet-ski is now a distant memory.
But if the aged populist and his allies want to dominate Philippine politics for a generation, they will need to justify the surrender to China ahead of the next presidential election.
Protesters greet Chinese President Xi Jinping in Manila. Picture credit: YouTube