The Philippines and China signed six agreements valued at millions of dollars, including two projects in the southern city of Marawi, following a high-level meeting in Manila on Thursday, officials said, in a sign that the Southeast Asian nation was maintaining its pivot to Beijing.
Visiting Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua and Philippine Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez oversaw the signing of the six bilateral documents, including feasibility studies for an expressway and a bridge, which will be funded by grants from China.
“We welcome this high level engagement, as we underscore the importance of assessing where we stand,” Dominguez said in a statement after the closed-door meeting with the Chinese delegation.
In a separate statement posted online by Dominguez’s office, Hu underscored that China had “elevated” its relations with the Philippines “through a comprehensive strategic partnership” when Chinese leader Xi Jinping made a state visit to Manila in November 2018.
“This year, President [Rodrigo] Duterte visited China twice. The two presidents reached a new consensus on how to deepen the pragmatic cooperation between our two countries,” Hu said, emphasizing that bilateral trade reached U.S. $55 billion (2.8 trillion pesos) last year, and reached U.S. $44 billion (2.25 trillion pesos) in the first three quarters of the current year.
Relations turned frosty after the Philippines asked an arbitration tribunal in The Hague in 2015 to invalidate China’s territorial claims on the South China Sea. But when Duterte took office in 2016, he distanced the government from Washington and gravitated toward Beijing, reversing the country’s traditional foreign policy.
During a meeting with Duterte in December 2016, Chinese envoy Zhao Jianhua offered to provide small arms and fast boats valued at $14 million (718 million pesos) and made available a $500 million (25.6 billion pesos) long-term soft loan for other equipment, Philippine officials said.
Duterte also set aside a 2016 ruling by the arbitration court that found in favor of Manila in the South China Sea dispute, striking a defeatist tone by saying that the Philippines would never win a war with Beijing.
The Philippine leader had declared his love for Xi in April when he embarked on his third visit to China. “I just simply love Xi Jinping. He understood, he understands my problem and he is willing to help,” Duterte told a news conference in his hometown Davao before leaving for Beijing.
“I would say, I need China. More than anybody else at this time of our national life, I need China,” he said. “I will not say something which is not true.”
Funded by Chinese grants
Agreements signed on Thursday include a feasibility study for the Davao City Expressway Project conducted by Beijing’s CCCC Highway Consultants Ltd, to be funded by a grant from the Chinese government; and a similar study for the Panay-Guimaras-Negros Island Bridge Project, also to be carried out by CCCC Highway. Both projects would cost an estimated 52.79 billion pesos (more than $1 billion).
China also would provide television and radio broadcasting equipment to the Philippine government, as well as donate four sets of CT Scan Inspection System to the customs bureau.
Agreements were also signed to construct the Marawi Sports Complex and Central Market, as part of the reconstruction program by the government at a cost of $400 million (20.5 billion pesos). The project consists of about 13,202 square meters, with the sports complex envisioned to be large enough to hold 1,000 people.
China pays “lip service”
Southeast Asian countries earlier agreed with China not pursue actions that could inflame tensions over overlapping claims in the South China Sea. But while China has paid lip service to the agreement, it continued to expand territories in the region potentially rich in mineral deposits.
More recently, it has been accused of swarming in areas near the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island, also called Thitu Island, about 484 km (300 miles) west of Palawan province. The Philippines has a small contingent on the island, and the government has been rehabilitating its port and airport facilities there.
The 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is to hold its annual summit in Thailand next week (Oct. 31 to Nov. 4) and the overlapping claims are expected to take center stage.
Analysts said it was high time for ASEAN-member states led by the Philippines to unite on the issue. China claims most of the South China Sea and has constructed military outposts on small islands and atolls, angering other countries with overlapping claims to the waters, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.
“The escalating geo-political and geo-economic challenges in the region is strong impetus for ASEAN member countries to unite on key South China Sea issues that can no longer be ignored,” said Dindo Manhint of the think-tank Strabase ADR Institute in Manila.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City and Richel V. Umel in Iligan City contributed to this report.