Can China’s word be trusted—specifically its much-ballyhooed promise of billions of dollars of aid to and investment in the Philippines?
That question was asked lately by the Asia Times, which noted a development that appeared to have escaped general notice given the noise and fog of other issues besetting the administration: “Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s hometown of Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao is still waiting for China to fulfill its vow to provide billions of dollars of aid and investment under its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative,” it pointed out.
The promised outlays, made a year ago, include “US$9 billion in soft loans, including a US$3 billion credit line from the Bank of China, while economic deals including infrastructure investments would amount to about US$15 billion,” the report said, citing a Department of Finance study.
“Yet it remains unclear why Beijing has tarried in making actual outlays while other One Belt, One Road initiatives are steaming ahead in other Asian countries,” Asia Times noted. “Some analysts suggest Beijing may be withholding the funds until the bilateral relationship is more firmly consolidated, including in regard to unresolved territorial disputes in the South China Sea.”
If promises are made to be broken, it does appear that China is not above that practice in its relations with the Philippines. Before the rapprochement initiated by the Duterte administration, the Philippines’ fraught dealings with its giant neighbor over the latter’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea include many instances of doublespeak and underhanded behavior, notably its seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 despite an agreement between the two countries to jointly withdraw from the area until a permanent agreement on the shoal’s ownership had been reached.
The Philippines complied, but China did not. It was only this year that Filipino fishers were able to return to the area, but now with Beijing’s assent as worked out by the Philippine government. In effect, the Philippines had acquiesced to a new reality: What was traditional fishing ground for generations of fishers from Zambales is now under another country’s control, and the Philippines is obliged to seek permission for its citizens to enter the area—or face the water cannons of the Chinese Coast Guard, as had happened to Filipino fishers in 2014 and 2015.
Despite the Philippines having won a decisive victory over China’s claims in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, China has accelerated its seizure and land reclamation activities. Satellite images have confirmed China’s newly built military facilities on a number of islands in the waters, yet it continues to officially dismiss international protests over such aggressive actions.
And that inability to be transparent can be a problem: President Duterte, at this time, is only relying on what he claims is China’s promise to him “not to build anything” on Scarborough Shoal and Pag-asa Island in the Spratlys. No such formal agreement between the two governments, codified in writing, has been made public, nor has Beijing independently confirmed the veracity of the promise Mr. Duterte was allegedly able to extract from it. Even the arbitral ruling, as definitive as it is, has been rejected by Beijing. What would prevent it from eventually disavowing this so-called promise to Mr. Duterte when it suits it?
The coming Asean Summit in Manila presents another opportunity for the members of the 50-year-old regional bloc to insist that China tamp down its tension-building activities and begin to abide by the Asean-China Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. The framework of that agreement, adopted in August, pointedly took note of China’s continuing militarization of the area—a good, but only the first, step in finally standing up to a problem that threatens the security and stability of Southeast Asia.
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