President Rodrigo Duterte with President Xi Jinping of China (Photo from Etienne Oliveau/Reuters, Aljazeera)
Even more alarming than the reported nearly done construction of Chinese military facilities in Philippine-claimed reefs in the South China Sea is the dismissive response of Malacañang. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque did not just downplay the gravity and implications of what China is doing in the disputed seas. His statement indicates that the policy of the Duterte administration on the territorial conflict with China is to feign helplessness and in effect legitimize China’s violation of Philippine sovereignty and patrimony.
No one is asking the President to declare a war against China. It is also true that the Chinese construction in the reefs started long before Pres. Duterte came into power. But what government should have been doing at the minimum is constantly protest China’s continued militarization of the disputed territories. What it should have been doing is use the favorable ruling by the United Nations (UN) Arbitral Tribunal to strengthen the country’s claim and gather further international support and recognition on Philippine sovereignty over the reefs. But instead of shoring up the country’s assertion of sovereignty through sustained diplomatic actions, Duterte has substantially weakened the Philippine position by kowtowing to China.
Malacañang sells to the Filipino people China’s supposed promise not to reclaim new islands or shoals. However, with its military facilities already entrenched in the disputed areas, China may no longer need additional reclamation, at least in the short term. Or should such need arises, it can easily expand and reclaim new areas precisely because it already has fortified its position. Chinese experts have already said that land reclamation in the South China Sea will continue to expand although they claim that construction would be for civilian and not military purposes. While it is uncertain that China would even honor its promise of not expanding its reclamation, it is certain that taking back from China the territories it grabbed from the Philippines is much more difficult now with its military infrastructure in the disputed areas already in place.
In exchange for a much softer stance on the territorial dispute, Pres. Duterte has actively sought Chinese patronage for his administration’s programs, especially the ambitious “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program. These include aid, concessional financing and investment pledges that the Department of Finance (DOF) has described as unprecedented and comprise the initial dividend from the President’s supposed foreign-policy rebalancing. So far, these commitments total an estimated US$ 7.34 billion (about Php367 billion @ US$1:Php50) in soft loans and grants, according to the DOF’s International Finance Group (IFG). The amount covers the implementation of 10 big-ticket infrastructure projects as well as the construction of two bridges in Metro Manila and two drug rehabilitation facilities in Mindanao, and aid to rehabilitate Marawi City.
The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) has earlier identified Chinese official development assistance (ODA) to bankroll at least three flagship projects of the Duterte administration — the Philippine National Railways (PNR) Long Haul from Calamba to Bicol (Php151 billion); the Kaliwa Dam (Php10.86 billion); and Chico River Pump Irrigation (Php2.70 billion). But note that these are not gifts with no strings attached. (See Table below)
These are loans that must be repaid with interests and are also tied to the provision of contracts to Chinese firms and suppliers. Meanwhile, in exchange for these conditional loans that benefit Chinese banks, corporations (and probably even workforce), the Duterte administration is weakening, if not practically giving up, the country’s claim on 381,000 square kilometers of maritime space as well as vast fishery, oil and gas, and mineral resources.
It is not only in South China Sea that the administration is allowing China to take over the country’s patrimony. Perhaps encouraged by the “peace and stability” that Pres. Duterte’s Martial Law declaration promises and by greater economic opportunities through Charter change (Cha-cha) that lifts restrictions on foreign capital, China is among the leading foreign investors that eye thousands of hectares of land in Mindanao for plantation operations and multibillion transport infrastructure projects to facilitate its exploitation of the region’s wealth. The Duterte administration also let China conduct maritime research in Benham Rise and basically allowed it to make a map of the maritime resources in the country’s eastern seaboard.
But for the President’s spokesperson, such total sellout of Philippine sovereignty and patrimony is not news. #
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