SONA 2017: What’s in it for China in Duterte’s ‘Build, Build, Build’?

Big infrastructure lenders like China and Japan profit not only from the interests accruing from their loans to build rails and roads. The larger gains they make are from the conditionalities they tie to these loans.

President Rodrigo Duterte with President Xi Jinping of China (Photo from Etienne Oliveau/Reuters, Aljazeera)

In his second State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Duterte as expected mentioned his grand infrastructure plan. There was special mention of China that Duterte said generously offered money for his “Build, Build, Build” program.

“If your Congress has no money, we will give you money” was what the Chinese supposedly told him, the President said in his speech.

Duterte in his SONA made the Chinese offer look like simple altruism and generosity. But in reality, on top of making Chinese imperialism appear benign, using soft power by bankrolling the country’s hard infrastructure profits China’s economy in various ways.

No debt crisis?

The concerns that Duterte’s infrastructure plan would result in a heavy debt burden are valid. After all, the price tag of what economic managers call as the “boldest infrastructure development program” in recent history is a whopping Php8 to 9 trillion.

Economic managers, however, assure the public that they have everything figured out. The plan is that government appropriations, not debt, will mainly fund the so-called “golden age of infrastructure”. The Finance department’s tax reform package aims to raise Php157 billion in additional revenues a year; the version passed by the House could generate Php130 billion.

At Php8 to 9 trillion, the annual cost of building infrastructure from 2017 to 2022 would be Php1.6 to 1.8 trillion. Clearly, the additional revenues from the tax package will not be enough even as it bleeds the poor dry.

In reality, the infrastructure program would be mostly debt-funded. But again, the public is being told that a debt crisis will not rear its ugly head. In fact, the Budget department expects that by the end of President Duterte’s term, the debt-to-GDP ratio would even fall to 38.1% from 40.6% in 2016.

Such optimism hinges on the economy not only sustaining its expansion but posting even more rapid growth. To outpace debt, the gross domestic product (GDP) must grow by 6.5 to 7.5% this year and 7-8% between 2018 and 2022.

It is tough to be as upbeat as administration officials given the structural weaknesses of the economy and amid a global crisis. For this year, debt watchers and creditors put Philippine GDP growth at 6.4 to 6.8% – below the range being hoped for by the economic managers. That’s the most bullish the projections could get.

Whatever rate the GDP grows by, the budget deficit is sure to increase as government ramps up infrastructure spending. The plan is to let the budget shortfall climb to 3% of GDP as infrastructure spending reaches as high as 7.4% of GDP.

While a bigger deficit means greater borrowing, there is supposedly no need to be anxious as the Budget department claims they will borrow in a fiscally sustainable way. Eighty percent of the deficit would be funded by domestic debt and only 20% foreign. Such borrowing mix lessens foreign exchange risks that could cause public debt to balloon.

Chinese and Japanese loans

But a review of what the Duterte administration has identified as its flagship infrastructure projects tells a different story. To be sure, the flagships – numbering 75 as of June – are just a fraction of the more than 4,000 infrastructure projects that government plans to do. They nonetheless represent the largest ones in terms of cost and are the top priorities for implementation.

Of the 75 flagship projects listed by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), 48 will be funded by foreign debt or official development assistance (ODA). Only 14 will be bankrolled through the national budget or General Appropriations Act (GAA). Just two projects are planned to be implemented via public-private partnership (PPP) while 11 have yet to be identified which mode to use.

As of June, only 53 out of the 75 flagships have estimated costs totaling PhpPhp1.58 trillion. Of the 53, 41 are ODA-funded projects worth Php1.40 trillion. The remaining Php181 billion would be funded through the GAA. In other words, almost 89% of the total cost of projects with already determined amounts will be paid for by foreign debt. (See Tables below)

Flagship infra summary

Notes: ODA – Official Development Assistance; GAA – General Appropriations Act; PPP – public-private partnership; TBD – to be determined (Based on data from NEDA) 

Just nine of the 41 ODA-funded flagship projects have identified donors/creditors, based on NEDA’s June list. These are Japan with three projects worth Php226.89 billion; China, three projects (Php164.55 billion); South Korea, two projects (Php14.06 billion); and World Bank, one project (Php4.79 billion).

The Chinese and Japanese are backing the Duterte administration’s largest mega-projects, an indication of how the two economic behemoths see “development cooperation” as one of the key arenas of their competition in the region. Japan is funding the Php211.46-billion PNR North 2 (Malolos-Clark Airport-Clark Green City Rail); Php9.99-billion Cavite Industrial Area Flood Management Project; and the Php5.44-billion Malitubog-Maridagao Irrigation Project, Phase II.

Meanwhile, China is bankrolling the Php151-billion PNR Long-haul (Calamba-Bicol); Php10.86-billion New Centennial Water Source – Kaliwa Dam Project; and Php2.70-billion Chico River Pump Irrigation Project.

Although not yet identified in the latest NEDA list, various media reports also link Chinese and Japanese loans to other big-ticket rail projects. These include the Php134-billion PNR South Commuter Line (Tutuban-Los Baños); the Php230-billion Manila Metro Line 9 (Mega Manila Subway Project – Phase 1); as well as the Mindanao Rail Project, of which the first phase (Tagum-Davao-Digos) costing Php35.26 billion will be funded via the GAA. (See Table below)

ODA flagship 1

ODA flagship 2

ODA flagship 3.png

Source: NEDA

Download NEDA’s entire list here

Gains beyond interests

Over-reliance on debt is obviously problematic but by itself tapping concessional loans to build much needed infrastructure is not a wrong policy. Sadly, ODA is shaped not by genuine development cooperation but by the narrow agenda of lending governments and the corporate interests they represent. Thus, potential economic and social development gains for a borrowing country are greatly weighed down by bloated costs of ODA-funded infrastructure.

Big infrastructure lenders like China and Japan profit not only from the interests accruing from their loans to build rails and roads. The larger gains they make are from the conditionalities they tie to these loans such as requiring the Philippines to exclusively source from Chinese and Japanese firms the goods and services needed to build the rails and roads.

Lenders dictate the technology, design and construction of the infrastructure to accommodate their own suppliers and infrastructure firms. As such, Chinese and Japanese contractors are also favorably positioned to corner operation and maintenance contracts once the rail systems and other infrastructure are privatized under the Duterte administration’s hybrid PPP scheme.

Lastly, creditors also favor the development of infrastructure in areas where they have business interests. This explains the concentration of Japan-funded infrastructure in Central and Southern Luzon where export zones with Japanese investments are concentrated. China’s interest in building infrastructure in Mindanao is tied to its plantation and mining interests in the region.

All these make the cost of infrastructure development in the Philippines more expensive and the debt burden onerous. Tied loans for infrastructure development creates commercial opportunities for Japanese and Chinese companies that are otherwise not available to them. In China’s case, infrastructure lending in poor countries is even used to create employment for their own workforce at the expense of local labor.

At a time of prolonged global recession and slowdown in profit rates of the industrial economies, these opportunities become even more important. Alas, these opportunities only arise by undermining the debtor’s own development needs. ###

(This is a slightly revised version of an article first published as IBON Features)

SONA 2017: Business interests with ties to Duterte to benefit from Martial Law extension

President Rodrigo Duterte with his Martial Law administrator Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and implementor Armed Forces Chief General Eduardo Año (Photo from Al Jazeera)

As expected, the so-called supermajority in Congress granted the extension of Martial Law that President Rodrigo Duterte asked for. Martial Law would be in effect in Mindanao until the end of the year.

Malacañang said that with the extension, the country could now “get on with the job of nation-building and contribute in the attainment of the full promise of Mindanao.” The Duterte administration intends to “transform Mindanao into a land of fulfillment”.

How exactly Martial Law could contribute in “nation-building” is unclear. What is clear is that the 261 lawmakers who rubber-stamped the presidential request have further built up the nation’s fear of an authoritarian regime that Duterte wants to establish.

Martial Law in Mindanao and its extension could indeed be just a dress rehearsal and forebodes an of all-out fascist rule that Duterte and his Martial Law generals plan to unleash on the entire country.

Meanwhile, the “attainment of the full promise of Mindanao” pertains to the unrestrained exploitation of the region’s resources. Despite decades of corporate plunder, many areas in Mindanao are still not yet fully exploited.

Business interests with ties to the President appear to be among the beneficiaries of the extension of Martial Law in Mindanao.

Investment opportunities

The World Bank, for instance, in an August 2016 report said that: “Mindanao has 10 million hectares of land, of which 59.4% or 6.066 million hectares are classified as forestlands… if properly delineated, and rights are defined, can potentially increase the land inventory for large- scale investments.”

It noted that of the 6.07 million hectares of forestlands in Mindanao, only 700,000 hectares are covered by industrial forest management agreements, mainly by corporations. There are 700,000 hectares more that are still not covered by any form of tenure instrument. Another 400,000 hectares of public forests that are unclassified – all potential areas for big corporate investments.

In addition, of the remaining 4.14 million hectares of alienable and disposable (A&D) lands in Mindanao, a huge 2.24 million hectares have not been covered by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). These millions of hectares of forest and A&D lands offer enormous opportunities for investment and profits.

“If we push for massive agri investments in Mindanao, we need to start looking at the availability of these lands for consolidation to achieve economies of scale,” said the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA), a government body created to among others promote and facilitate investments in the region.

Under the Duterte administration, MinDA and the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) are also working to fast-track the Mindanao Ecozone Masterplan. The plan will develop existing and new economic zones around Mindanao to increase trading activities and attract more foreign investments.

There are 81 accredited ecozones in the region covering agro-industry, manufacturing, information technology and tourism. The Duterte administration is currently conducting an inventory of areas in Mindanao that can be developed as “ecozone cities”.

But many of these supposedly idle areas or available lands are actually occupied by lumad and peasant communities. Their firm resistance and the strong presence of the New People’s Army (NPA) are the biggest obstacles to the massive expansion in Mindanao of corporate plantations, big mining companies, and export-driven industrial enclaves – and the construction of hard infrastructure to support their operation.

The resistance is not against development but against the land and resource grabbing and massive displacement of local communities that often accompany big-ticket investment projects in Mindanao. That is why the NPA, and the lumad, farmers and farmworkers are the real targets of the extended Martial Law in Mindanao.

Big business interests

Indeed, Duterte’s Martial Law is apparently more about providing security to big investors who want to further exploit Mindanao. And it appears that the business sector feels encouraged by the strongman rule that Duterte is imposing. The organizers of the recently held Davao Investment Conference (ICON), for instance, reported record-breaking confirmed attendance, including about 100 foreign investors.

In an earlier report, the organizers said ICON participants include the country’s biggest conglomerates like San Miguel Corp. (SMC) as well as 30-40 “big Chinese investors”, among others.

SMC and the Chinese are among those most aggressive in expanding in Mindanao particularly in establishing vast plantations and constructing infrastructure. Chinese investors have been reportedly discussing with the Duterte administration the possibility of a 6,000-hectare tea plantation in a territory controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Duterte has been actively seeking Chinese patronage, mainly in the form of official development assistance (ODA) or loans as well as military assistance. Among those that the administration is pitching to China are multi-billion infrastructure projects in Mindanao including expressways, coastal roads, seaport and airport development, and the Mindanao railway system.

On the other hand, SMC (together with Malaysia’s Kuok Group) is developing about 18,495 hectares of forestlands covering four Davao del Norte municipalities for oil palm production. Just last August 2016, SMC also opened a 2,000-hectare industrial estate in Malita, Davao Occidental that also has a 20-meter deep seaport that can accommodate container vessels.

Earlier, the conglomerate was reported to be looking at a total of 800,000 hectares of lands for development as commercial farms in Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay, Sarangani, Davao del Sur, South Cotabato, North Cotabato and Agusan del Norte.

Of course, SMC’s top man Ramon S. Ang is known to be “close” to Duterte. The SMC president was among Duterte’s campaign contributors in 2016 giving an undisclosed amount and perhaps other forms of support as Ang wasn’t even listed in the official Statement of Contributions and Expenditures (SOCE).

Ang also offered to buy Duterte a private jet (worth as much as US$65 million) that he could use as President while donating Php1 billion to the Chief Executive’s pet campaign, the war on drugs.

Meanwhile, Duterte’s former campaign spokesperson and Irrigation chief Peter Laviña and his group Philippine Palm Oil Development Council Inc. has been reportedly lobbying the government since Aquino’s time to develop at least 300,000 hectares of Mindanao lands for palm oil production targeting MILF territories as well as CARP and lumad lands.

These are some of the big business interests in Mindanao that stand to benefit from the state repression of local communities opposed to their operations. Apparently, Martial Law is more than what President Duterte, his Generals and their allies in Congress are telling us. ###

Martial Law: Lorenzana and Año’s “innovative” approach not just vs. Maute?

Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana and AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Año (Photo from Frances Mangosing/inquirer.net)

Is Martial Law Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and armed forces chief (and now Martial Law administrator) Gen. Eduardo Año’s “innovative” approach to end the armed conflict in Mindanao and to achieve the military establishment’s self-imposed target of wiping out armed groups in the region before President Rodrigo Duterte’s first State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July?

Is it actually aimed not just at the Maute and other terrorist groups but also legitimate rebel forces, including those that the Duterte administration is pursuing a negotiated peace agreement with?

At the start of the year (January 9), Lorenzana declared that the military would crush the Maute group (and Abu Sayyaf) in six months. To achieve the stated target, Lorenzana said they would use an “innovative” approach. “We are going to do something new or innovative to finish this problem once and for all,” Lorenzana said as quoted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gen. Año followed up Lorenzana’s declaration with the deployment of more than 50 Army battalions in Mindanao. It is said to be most massive AFP troops deployment ever with the avowed goal of “wiping out” the Abu Sayyaf, Maute group, and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter (BIFF). The military is set to assess the progress of this bold counter-insurgency target in June.

By end of January, Lorenzana reported that the “all-out war” against the Maute and other terrorist groups is already in full swing, using the military’s ground, sea, and air assets (including newly purchased FA-50 fighter jets).

The AFP’s operations against Mindanao’s terrorist groups under the Duterte administration have actually started long before the January pronouncements of Lorenzana and Año. In its report for the first 100 days of Pres. Duterte, the AFP said that it has already launched 579 “massive focused military operations” against the Abu Sayyaf, Maute and BIFF that resulted in the neutralization of almost 150 terrorist personalities (killed, surrendered, or captured).

Prior to the Marawi clashes, the AFP said that the Maute group has been suffering heavy blows from the sustained military campaign. On April 24, the military reported that the Maute group’s main camp in Lanao del Sur has already been seized and occupied by state forces, with some 30 of its members supposedly killed in the combat operations.

Meanwhile, hours before Lorenzana and other Cabinet officials, who were in Russia, announced Pres. Duterte’s Martial Law order late Wednesday (May 23) night, officials on the ground were saying that the Marawi situation is already under control. (See Timeline)

With an already sustained campaign and deployment of huge military resources, what justifies the Martial Law declaration? And why the entire island of Mindanao when the incident that supposedly triggered it is only in Marawi City?

Apparently, for Lorenzana, the target of Martial Law is not just the Abu Sayyaf and Maute group in Marawi City but also the New People’s Army (NPA). In justifying the declaration of Martial Law over the entire island of Mindanao, Lorenzana, as quoted by MindaNews, said: “Because there are also problems in Zamboanga, Sulu, Tawi-tawi, also in Central Mindanao, the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Forces) area, and also some problems in Region 11 (Southern Mindanao) yung pangongotong ng NPA (extortion by the New Peoples’ Army)”.

Lorenzana and the military establishment have been carrying out a sustained campaign to undermine the peace talks with the NPA, Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). The DND/military propaganda against the CPP-NPA-NDFP has been clearly aimed to delegitimize the peace talks such as Lorenzana’s terrorist tagging of the rebel group just before the last round of formal peace talks between the NDFP and government panels started last April. NPA units have been the strongest in Mindanao with a string of successful tactical offensives against the military and police as well as against abusive businesses operating in the region such as mining companies and plantations.

Martial Law does not single out Maute, Abu Sayyaf or BIFF. It opens everyone in Mindanao – including those that the AFP and DND are accusing of as being NPA members or sympathizers and CPP front organizations – to the many abuses and atrocities of state forces. Gen. Año who will be the administrator of Martial Law has been notorious for committing such grave human rights abuses under the military’s anti-NPA campaign.

The human rights situation in Mindanao and throughout the country has already been appalling – with the military and police as among the main perpetrators – even without Martial Law. We do not need to imagine what will happen to human rights under a military rule, we just need to remember the Marcos dictatorship. ###

‘Dutertenomics’: golden age of oligarchic and foreign interests in infrastructure?

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Duterte’s economic managers present “Dutertenomics” – a grand plan that they said will usher in a “golden age of infrastructure” (Photo by Marianne Bermudez/Inquirer.net)

Build, build, build” is said to be the foundation of the Duterte administration’s development plan, which his economic managers are packaging as “Dutertenomics”. The plan is supposed to usher in a “golden age of infrastructure”.

But despite the attempt at branding, Dutertenomics is neither new nor unique. Its cornerstone of massive infrastructure development is still built on the neoliberal agenda of opening up additional profit-making prospects for big local and foreign business, including through “development” lending, building and operating the infrastructure themselves and/or constructing facilities that would benefit their commercial interests.

Worse, the ambitious plan may not usher in a golden age of infrastructure but instead a golden age of oligarchic and foreign interests in infrastructure while the public bears more onerous financial burden arising from greater debts and taxes.

AmBisyon Natin

There is no denying of the urgent and huge infrastructure needs of the country, especially transport. The Philippines has the worst overall infrastructure and worst transport infrastructure (roads, railroads, port and air transport) among major countries in Southeast Asia, according to the 2015-2016 Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum (WEF). The intolerable traffic in Metro Manila and the state of disrepair of the public transport system illustrate the dismal shape of transport infrastructure in the country.

Thus, infrastructure, specifically the transport sector, has been made the cornerstone of Dutertenomics. It is a key component of AmBisyon Natin 2040, a vision to make the Philippines a “prosperous, predominantly middle-class society” that President Rodrigo Duterte has adopted as guide for long-term national development planning.

AmBisyon Natin listed priority sectors that include the development of infrastructure such as roads, ports, airports, bridges and communication (“Connectivity”) as well as housing and urban development. It also identified “investment in high-quality infrastructure to make the cost of moving people, goods and services competitive” as one of the policy instruments to make the aspirations of AmBisyon Natin a reality.

The Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2017-2022 is the first medium-term plan anchored on AmBisyon Natin. Under this PDP, the Duterte administration aims to make its six-year term the so-called “golden age of infrastructure” with spending on infrastructure increasing substantially (i.e. 5.1% of gross domestic product or GDP in 2016 to 7.4% in 2022). Concrete and measurable indicators have been set for transport infrastructure (road, rail, air and water transport); water and power resources; and social infrastructure (classrooms, health centers, housing units).

(Download the PDP’s Chapter 1 – Introduction and Chapter 19 – Accelerating Infrastructure Development)

The “golden age of infrastructure” includes an initial list of 64 big-ticket projects for implementation or in the pipeline that are mostly transport infrastructure such as major road networks, railway systems, bus rapid transit systems, and airport and seaport modernization. These are on top of 15 ongoing infrastructure projects, which are either locally funded, with official development assistance (ODA), or through public-private partnership (PPP).

Hybrid and unsolicited PPP

PPP, which is essentially the neoliberal privatization of infrastructure development and commercialization of services, will continue to be the main program to meet the country’s infrastructure needs. The PDP will promote PPP by addressing “bottlenecks in PPP planning and implementation” and pursuing “reforms to enhance the business environment” to encourage investors. To do these, among the legislative agenda under the PDP is the amendment of the BOT Law and its implementing rules and regulations (IRR).

In the previous Aquino administration, such policy reform has taken the form of the PPP Act that will among others institutionalize state guarantees on financial and regulatory risks of PPP projects. (Read “Aquino’s PPP legacy”) In the current 17th Congress, bills to introduce the PPP Act and BOT Law amendment have already been filed in both chambers. At the Senate, Sen. Sonny Angara filed Senate Bill (SB) No. 951 (“PPP Act”) while at the House of Representatives Rep. Vilma Santos-Recto filed a counterpart proposal (House Bill or HB No. 1944). HB 2727 of Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano, meanwhile, aims to amend the BOT Law. There are also moves to introduce foreign investment liberalization through the PPP Act.

As of March 28, there are 15 awarded PPP projects worth Php310.51 billion, based on the latest status report of the PPP Center. Of these, four are completed and operational (Php31.77 billion); seven are under construction (Php150.01 billion); and four are under pre-construction (Php128.73).

The country’s richest and most influential oligarchs control these PPP projects. The San Miguel Corp. (SMC) group accounts for 45.9% of the total cost of ongoing and/or completed PPP projects as of March 2017. The Manny V. Pangilinan (MVP) and Ayala tandem, meanwhile, comprises 21.5% on top of MVP’s own projects comprising 18.9 percent. All in all, the SMC, MVP, and Ayala groups collectively control 10 of the 15 ongoing and/or completed PPP projects worth Php275.15 billion or equivalent to 88.6% of the total cost. (See Chart)

Blog 05 Dutertenomics infrastructure Chart

These same oligarchs are positioning themselves to corner more infrastructure projects as the Duterte administration promotes unsolicited projects and the so-called hybrid PPPs to push its grand infrastructure plan.

Unsolicited projects proposed by the big oligarchs now total Php2.6 trillion, mostly in the transport sector as they see opportunity in the traffic crisis. These big oligarchs take advantage of unsolicited projects to build infrastructure that they will not only profit from but would also benefit their other business interests (e.g. SM’s unsolicited proposal to build a Php25-billion toll road that will link its malls in Pasay and Makati). This further weakens the central role that government should be playing in rationally planning and deciding which key infrastructure projects are needed, where to put them, and how they serve the overall development plan.

Hybrid PPP, on the other hand, is a worse form of PPP because it puts even heavier load on the public sector than the already onerous burden it shoulders under a regular PPP. In a regular PPP, the private sector will raise funds to build the infrastructure, and then operate and maintain (O&M) it in a fixed period to recover investments and earn profits. In a hybrid PPP, the public sector will finance the construction of the infrastructure through official development assistance (ODA) loans and then give the O&M to the private sector. The public will thus be burdened with direct debt servicing for the ODA loans (in a regular PPP, debt is often a contingent liability), profit guarantees and other perks for the private operator, and high user fees.

With preference for unsolicited projects and hybrid PPP, and the pending Traffic Emergency Bill – supposedly meant to address the traffic crisis – the stage to favor certain big oligarchs is set. With emergency or special powers, the Executive could fast track the implementation of transport infrastructure projects through negotiated contracts in the pretext of solving the urgent traffic crisis.

Increased foreign role

Meanwhile, as bilateral relations with China warm up under Duterte, the administration is actively seeking Chinese financing for big-ticket infrastructure projects through bilateral ODA loans, as well as multilaterally through the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), to fulfill the so-called “golden age of infrastructure”.

Reports say that China is set to finance Php172.4-billion worth of infrastructure projects this year. This is part of the 15 projects identified for Chinese financing under the Duterte administration estimated at a total of $6.96 billion (Php349.92 billion). Earlier reports indicated that one of the projects that China will finance is the South Line of the North-South Railway Project (NSRP) for $3.01 billion (Php151.33 billion). China also expressed initial interest in bankrolling “Duterte’s dream” of Php218-billion, 830-kilometer Mindanao railway system.

Aside from China, other imperialist financial institutions are also lining up to fund Duterte’s “golden age of infrastructure”, also mostly in the transport sector. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has committed to finance three mega-transport projects with a combined cost of $8.8 billion (Php442.42 billion). Eleven other projects are being pitched as well to Japan for possible funding including irrigation and flood control projects. These projects are: $4.3-billion initial phase of the Mega Metro Manila subway system connecting FTI in Taguig City to the SM North EDSA and Trinoma malls in Quezon City; the $2.7-billion commuter line extending to Los Baños, Laguna, the south line of the North-South railway project, and the $1.9-billion high-speed rail extending to the soon-to-rise Clark Green City of the North-South Commuter Railway connecting Tutuban in Manila and Malolos, Bulacan.

The US-controlled World Bank, on the other hand, is providing $64.6 million (Php3.25 billion) for the first line of the Metro Manila bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

With increased ODA borrowing to fund infrastructure development, Duterte’s economic team has been pushing for a package of tax reforms that would be shouldered more heavily by the poor and ordinary income earners. The tax reform package entails additional burden that includes higher value-added tax (VAT), expanded and higher excise tax on all petroleum products, as well as the sugar excise tax. While the poor bear the brunt of these reforms, the rich get tax benefits such as lower corporate income tax as well as tax cuts in real estate and property-related transactions. And these rich include the oligarchs that corner the infrastructure projects (including those to be funded by ODA) the costs of which the taxpaying public will shoulder.

In addition to financing PPP projects, increased role for foreign interests is expected as the push to further liberalize infrastructure development continues. The US, for instance, has renewed calls to lift constitutional restrictions on foreign investments to allow and encourage American firms to participate in the Duterte administration’s PPP program. Another route being promoted by the US for American involvement in PPP is through the relaxation of limits set under the Foreign Investment Negative List (FINL). Meanwhile, Duterte himself has said that he is supportive of lifting constitutional limits on foreign investments through Charter change (Cha-cha).

Already, the PPP Center under the current administration has launched a UK-funded (Php4.35 million) Development of Foreign Investment Framework Project that “will facilitate the legal and institutional push to further build a favorable PPP business environment for foreign investors”. The output of this project will be translated into inputs to the PPP Act and its IRR.

Another pending legislative proposal to allow full foreign participation in key infrastructure sectors is HB 446 that seeks to amend the Public Service Act and redefine public utility. When passed, it will open telecommunications, transport and power industries to 100% foreign ownership.

Policy issue of profit-driven infrastructure

Ongoing PPP/infrastructure/transport projects continue to burden the people. The Php62.7-billion MRT-7 project (SMC) – the second largest among active PPP projects – for instance, is fraught with onerous contractual terms that are disadvantageous to taxpayers (state guarantees on private debt, amortization payments, etc.) and end-users (guaranteed fare adjustments) while causing massive displacement among urban poor and farmer communities. The same thing is true with the LRT-1 (MVP-Ayala) PPP project. (Read “How MVP-Ayala will squeeze LRT 1 commuters dry”)

Ultimately, it all goes back to the policy issue of private sector and profit-driven infrastructure development that the so-called Dutertenomics promote. The country needs to urgently address its infrastructure crisis but as IBON has repeatedly raised in the past, infrastructure development for transport as well other key sectors carried out with profit-driven agenda contradicts and undermines the role of infrastructure in improving the living condition of the people and serving the overall economic development and general public interests of the country. ###

This article was first published as IBON Features

(Exchange rate used: Php50.2752 per US dollar, March 2017 average, BSP – http://www.bsp.gov.ph/statistics/spei_new/tab12_pus.htm)

Trump builds ‘legitimacy’ thru bombs and war-making

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Photo from trofire.com

When Donald Trump surprisingly clinched the US presidency, the legitimacy of his regime has been challenged from the onset. Rival Democratic Party, with the apparent help of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), immediately launched a campaign to delegitimize Trump.

Even within his Republican Party, there seems to be mistrust on Trump to pursue traditional US foreign policy, which since 9/11 has been largely defined by the neoconservatives (i.e., advocates of preemptive wars, among others).

The reason? Trump’s stance on Russia and his overtures of normalizing relations with the US’s longtime adversary during the campaign. Trump’s position reflects the agenda of the monopoly capitalist clique he represents such as a faction of Big Oil that is willing to cooperate more with Russia for its vast oil and gas resources.

One of them is Exxon Mobil, which has a mammoth $500-billion oil deal with Russia. President Barack Obama blocked the deal as one of the sanctions against Russia for its role in Ukraine. Improved US relations with Russia would allow Exxon Mobil to exploit oil from almost 26 million hectares of Russian land, said to be five times the size of what America’s largest oil company has in the US.

But normalized US-Russia relations aren’t as simple, of course. It requires a shift as well in US foreign policy towards Russia’s biggest allies Iran and China, something that even Trump himself is unwilling to do. A policy shift in Iran would greatly compromise the US long held agenda to remain in control of Middle East oil while it will not give up Asia Pacific and its massive market, vast resources and strategic sea-lanes to China.

De-escalating a lucrative New Cold War amid a prolonged economic crisis also doesn’t sit well with the military-industrial and security complex, which profits out of war and the threat of war that is constantly driven by the endless competition among monopoly capitalists to divide the world.

The controversies and predicament that Trump faces simply show the deepened contradiction among the competing big interests in the US and imperialism’s increasingly convoluted geopolitical agenda.

Picking up the momentum of the Democratic Party’s propaganda that Moscow hacked the US elections to benefit Trump, the billionaire President has been depicted as a Kremlin stooge by the CIA-fed corporate mass media. A leaked wiretapped conversation with a Russian diplomat of Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was since forced to resign, further fired up anti-Moscow hysteria as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and several congressional bodies investigate the alleged Trump-Russia collusion. Trump knew that the campaign to destabilize his fledgling regime was real; that a domestic CIA “regime change” operation is likely already ongoing.

In this regard, Washington’s swift decision to drop 59 Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airbase is more about Trump trying to preserve his presidency than retaliating (in the name of “small children and beautiful babies” killed) against a supposed chemical attack by the Russia-backed Assad regime. The message that the Trump retaliatory attack (which reportedly killed nine civilians, including four children) tried to convey was clear: explicitly, the “bromance” with Vladimir Putin is no more and implicitly, the happy days for the lucrative war making business are far from over.

Trump’s self-serving intention in directly bombing Syria only serves to amplify the brutal criminality of US military intervention and war of aggression in that country and region that has already claimed thousands of innocent lives. In March alone, there were reportedly 1,472 innocent civilians killed in Syria by US-made and delivered bombs.

Amid the corporate media hysterics, a more reasonable action by Trump – like supporting Moscow’s call for a prompt and serious probe even as it claims that Assad’s opponents were the ones in possession of the nerve gas – could be easily interpreted as further proof that a Kremlin puppet is in the White House. Instead, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hints that a regime change in Syria is now back on the agenda even if it aggravates the tension with Russia.

Trump is on the offensive to reverse the campaign to undermine his presidency by rallying the entire monopoly capitalist state machinery behind a campaign to reassert US global power and dominance, including through reckless saber-rattling and military adventurism that court all-out nuclear war.

He followed up his action against Syria with the much publicized bombing of an ISIS cave and bunker complex in Afghanistan with the so-called “Mother of All Bombs”, the largest non-nuclear weapon in the US arsenal. It was a “shock and awe” display and ruthless projection of US firepower, which is meant to send the message that it is business as usual for US imperialism and that Syria, North Korea, China, Iran, even Russia and others that threaten US interests should take notice.

After bombing Syria and Afghanistan, Trump then deployed the nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its group of battle warships off the coast of the Korean peninsula in an attempt to bully North Korea to stop its recent missile tests.

It remains to be seen how Trump’s more aggressive military posturing abroad will favorably impact on his shaken legitimacy at home. What is clear is that this will increase the stake for the US to meddle more in countries that play a key role in promoting its interests and agenda in the region and the world.

How such greater foreign intervention would translate in the Philippines is something that must be closely watched as the Duterte administration tries to negotiate a peace pact with the revolutionary groups that pose the biggest threat to US imperialism in the country – the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the New People’ Army (NPA) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) –– and starts to forge closer bilateral ties with US rivals China and Russia.

Already, pro-US forces, including several of President Rodrigo Duterte’s own men, have been relentlessly undermining the peace talks with the Left while ensuring that US military presence in the country remains strong.

But the situation also presents a good opportunity for Duterte to show that his independent foreign policy is beyond mere rhetoric by asserting national sovereignty and interest over the US’s imperialist agenda. ###

#OccupyBulacan and the anarchy in housing and urban development

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Photo from Kadamay

When the urban poor group Kadamay (Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap) led the occupation of idle housing units in a government relocation site in Pandi, Bulacan last week, President Rodrigo Duterte called the action “anarchy”. He even threatened them with eviction.

Latest report says that the urban poor families – numbering about 5,000 people – have already occupied six government housing sites in Pandi and in San Jose del Monte, also in Bulacan.

But if there’s anarchy in this situation, it is not the occupation by the poor of some 4,000 houses that have been left empty for years. It is the flawed, profit-driven public housing program and government’s continuing neglect of the chronic housing crisis that have brought about anarchy in housing production and meeting the needs of the poor and homeless.

These housing units have been unused not because of lack of demand. According to the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC), the housing backlog as of December 2016 is pegged at 2.02 million units. From this backlog, the total housing needs is expected to swell to almost 6.80 million units by 2022, growing annually by more than 796,000.

Meanwhile, there are more than 1.50 million informal settler families (ISFs) nationwide, of whom 39% are concentrated in Metro Manila, based on government’s latest data.

The actual figures are much higher of course considering how official poverty data understate the real extent of poverty. A September 2016 survey by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), for instance, estimates that 36% of Metro Manila’s population count themselves as poor. That’s equivalent to around 4.64 million urban poor in the capital alone.

Amid such a huge (and growing) housing backlog and enormous number (official count or otherwise) of urban poor who need decent shelter, there are idle housing units like those in Bulacan. The National Housing Authority (NHA) said that the there are about 52,341 idle housing units as of last year.

This is the anarchy that Duterte should be concerned with, one that raises the question of not only bureaucratic inefficiency and neglect, but more fundamentally, of state policy and social justice.

The anarchy is actually not just in the housing program but also in the overall urban development plan of government, implemented mainly through public-private partnership (PPP), that is biased against the poor and skewed towards oligarchic interests.

To illustrate, profit-oriented infrastructure development in urban centers via PPP such as the construction of mega business districts often leads to the blatant marginalization of poor communities from access to basic social and economic services. Government promotes these projects with its neoliberal bias of allocating public lands not based on the social and development needs of the people but on the most commercially profitable use of urban lands.

One example is the Php65-billion Quezon City Business District (QCBD), a 2009 joint venture between the NHA and Ayala Land Inc. for 10 years. QCBD is touted as the country’s “first transit-oriented, mixed-use business district” and will include, among others, the construction of 45 towers over 29 hectares of property.

The project covers an area where the Ayala group already has established business interests such as the Trinoma Mall and LRT-1. Thousands of urban poor settlers in the area have already been dislocated, with more to come. The NHA estimates that the QCBD will displace over 15,000 families. Even the public Philippine Children’s Medical Center (PCMC), which mainly serves poor children, has been under threat of dislocation by the QCBD.

Development of urban infrastructure under PPP does not only burden the public with exorbitant user fees, state guarantees, tax incentives, etc. but even compromises the usefulness of the infrastructure itself as projects are designed not for public interest but to meet the specific and narrow business interests of the private project proponents.

This is illustrated, for example, by the controversy on the common station of the LRT-1 PPP project. The Ayala group, which is part of the consortium that won the said project, wanted to build the common station – that will link LRT-1 with MRT-3 – in front of its own Trinoma Mall even if it undermines the access and convenience of commuters, on top of additional costs that the public will shoulder.

Turned over to profit-seeking business interests, infrastructure development has become anarchic instead of being planned and coordinated within a pro-people urban development framework. This has resulted to the dismal state of public housing, transportation system, public utilities, and other key economic and social infrastructure.

It is the State that Duterte now represents that brought anarchy to the urban poor. The Occupy Bulacan, on the other hand, is an organized political action by the poor to expose and challenge this anarchy and to assert the legitimate people’s right to shelter and development. ###

Meralco rate hikes, prepaid electricity and neoliberal “users pay”

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Photo from GMA News Online

First published as IBON Features

The February rate hike of Php0.92 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) that the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) announced is actually just the initial strike. In March, the unfortunate public should expect an even stronger blow from the utility giant as another rate hike of as much as Php1.44 per kWh looms.

Meralco has a simple solution for consumers who find it hard to cope with their ever-increasing monthly electricity bills. Go prepaid and supposedly save up to 20% in consumption. About 40,000 customers are already using Meralco’s prepaid system called Kuryente Load (KLoad). By yearend, Meralco expects to add 100,000 more.

But the basic question is – how can customers save amid the staggering rate increases? The answer is – they can’t. But with prepaid electricity, as the Energy Department once said, consumers will “not unnecessarily spend for what they cannot afford”. Put another way – If you can’t afford electricity, then don’t use it.

Indeed, looking past Meralco’s dodgy claim, KLoad is nothing more than the worst form of the neoliberal tenet “users pay”. It merely passes on the burden of high power rates further to the consumers. It also deepens the exclusion of the poor from access to electricity as a basic service and their right to decent living.

How it works

KLoad was pilot tested in 2013 and commercially rolled out in 2015. To use it, a customer must have Meralco’s “intelligent” meter installed first and register a mobile number for the account. Through SMS (‘text’) using the registered mobile number, the user can load KLoad cards worth as low as Php100 and as high as Php1,000.

The user will receive a text message confirming that the amount has been loaded successfully to his or her account. KLoad also lets users receive text notifications on the account’s remaining balance, low load reminder, and rate adjustments. Like prepaid cards for mobile, KLoad cards can be bought even at retail stores.

For Filipinos who have long been accustomed to prepaid mobile service, KLoad is pretty easy to grasp. In fact, it is this familiarity with and preference for prepaid mobile that Meralco banks on for its KLoad. Saddled with tight budget, most Filipinos use prepaid mobile to control spending.

Lack of a steady income, in fact, forces many to buy in tingi not just mobile credits but most of their daily needs – from shampoo to 3-in-1 coffee. The same concept supposedly applies to prepaid electricity.

The problem is it’s not quite the case.

Rising power rates

Under the KLoad system, retail rates will be the same as the effective postpaid rate at the particular month the load was consumed. Unconsumed credits in a given month will be charged with prevailing rates in the following month.

Unlike in prepaid mobile and other consumer goods where charges are more or less predictable, electricity rates vary monthly (often upwards). The reason is deregulation under the Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001 (Epira), which allows automatic adjustments in the generation charge and other periodic adjustments.

The fluctuating rates make it difficult for a household to effectively monitor and regulate their consumption, and accordingly plan their use of electricity based on prepaid credits.

But far more crucially, the ever-increasing power rates will offset efforts by a household to cut their electricity bill even when they shift to KLoad. No matter how much kilowatt-hour that a household tries to reduce in their consumption, the end result is still an exorbitant electricity bill.

Meralco’s own commissioned survey in 2016 shows that its rates are the third highest in Asia. An average Meralco customer is also paying 4.5% of their disposable income for electricity, higher than the global average of 3.9 percent.

Aside from deregulating rates, Epira also privatized the country’s power plants. In Luzon where Meralco operates, just three groups (i.e., San Miguel, Lopez, and Aboitiz) control 70% of power generation. Such tremendous control makes alleged collusion and price rigging easier like during power plant shutdowns that lead to rate spikes.

The whopping rate hike of up to Php1.44 per kWh that Meralco advised its customers to expect in March, for instance, is due to Malampaya maintenance shutdown from 28 January to 16 February. Other power plants will also be on maintenance shutdown on 13-17 February, placing more pressure on power supply and rates.

Anti-consumer, anti-poor

Instead of addressing these policy issues, the onus of coping with rising electricity costs is further passed on to hapless consumers under the prepaid system. With KLoad, no prepaid credits, no electricity. Disconnection is automatic, done remotely by Meralco. It’s that straightforward and heartless.

Through remote and automatic disconnection when credits run out, KLoad violates the rights of Meralco customers as outlined in the Magna Carta for Residential Electricity Consumers. These rights include the right to due process and notice prior to disconnection and suspension of disconnection.

Prepaid customers are supposed to be notified via text three days before the remaining load is estimated to run out. The warning shall be based on the average consumption of the household. But what if the household used more electricity than their average consumption and depleted the load in two days instead of three?

KLoad primarily targets poor communities where collection of monthly bill is problematic and illegal connection is prevalent. A prepaid system for these households ensures that bills are paid to and collected by Meralco. As explained by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), prepaid electricity reduces pilferage and improves collection efficiency and cash flow for distribution utilities.

Meralco has an existing partnership with the National Housing Authority (NHA) to provide KLoad service to urban poor families resettled from waterways and danger areas in Metro Manila. Recently, in a Tondo slum, Meralco installed KLoad for former Smokey Mountain residents.

Notably, prepaid system is among the supposed best approaches to slum electrification that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) endorsed in its 2004 study that also included Meralco as one of the cases.

Affront to decent living

KLoad is part of the long-term plan of Meralco to install the so-called Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) – an integrated system of intelligent meters – in its franchise area. The AMI will allow Meralco to, among others, remotely switch on and off the supply of electricity not only to prepaid customers but also those with regular connection.

Access to electricity is needed to achieve the minimum standard of decent living. Thus, it should not be contingent upon the ability of people to pay and must be a basic right guaranteed by the state. KLoad and Meralco’s remote and automatic disconnection system is a blatant affront to this right.

KLoad will set a worrisome precedent if not questioned and opposed. It is prepaid electricity today. Prepaid water soon? ###

Also read “Prepaid electricity, anyone?” and other articles on the Philippine power industry