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Growing Philippines-China relations: Boon or bane?

/ 05:20 AM December 14, 2018

Are Filipinos benefiting from the growing strength of Philippine-China relations?

The majority of Filipinos are still waiting for China to fulfill its commitment to provide billions of dollars of aid and investment to the country under Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

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Many political observers believe that the Duterte administration’s soft stance on the issue of militarization in the West Philippines Sea has generated more gains for Beijing than for Manila. The lack of strong diplomatic action and protest over the documented instances of Chinese harassment and bullying of Filipino fishermen is alarming. Unfortunately, such inaction has yet to provide the Philippines any leverage over its own economic exclusive zone. The recent developments in the South China Sea have only shown the continued weakness and acquiescence of Malacañang to the dictates of China.

Meanwhile, the significant increase of imports from China, as well as the surge of Chinese arrivals in the Philippines, apparently favor the Asian power more than the Philippines. In 2017, 13 percent of the country’s total exports, amounting to $8.02 billion, went to China. But China gained more than double that amount, as the Philippines imported some $17.46 billion worth of goods in the same year.

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Recently, some senators expressed concern over the growing number of Chinese workers in the country and its effect on the local workforce. Data from the Bureau of Immigration showed that more than one million Chinese entered the country in 2017 alone, either as a tourist or as a worker.

Sen. Joel Villanueva, chair of the committee on labor, warned that these Chinese nationals might be “stealing jobs from Filipinos.” More than 119,000 Chinese “tourists” have skirted labor regulations to gain temporary employment in the country.

The shift in the Philippines’ foreign policy is not a mere tactical move. It carries with it serious strategic implications in the areas of politics, economy and security. Certain conditions and factors should be taken into account as the Philippines makes its pivot to China.

The existing economic and military agreements with the US government, Japan and other traditional allies, for one, should be taken into consideration. The Philippines’ policy shift to Beijing may complicate or water down the defense agreements with the US government, such as the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

The Philippines also needs to account for the reaction and perspective of other countries that share a common interest with it vis-à-vis the South China Sea dispute, as well as other interested countries like Australia, Japan, India, Great Britain and the United States. Will the other countries perceive any joint exploration agreement or understanding between the Philippines and China as capitulation or innovation?

The Filipino public should remain vigilant, with the administration having signed 29 agreements with China touching on economic, social, cultural and environmental affairs, as well as humanitarian aid, law enforcement, infrastructure and monetary policies. The emergence of Mislatel, a joint venture between Udenna Corp. and China Telecommunications Corp., as the third major telecommunications player in the Philippines, may also impinge on national security.

Contrary to public pronouncements, these developments don’t seem headed for now toward a win-win situation. The country’s bilateral relations with China should be able to demonstrate results other than simple promises in terms of job creation, poverty alleviation, increase in Chinese foreign direct investment, and technological advancement.

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Justice Antonio Carpio and former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario have urged Malacañang to be more transparent in its dealings with China. At all times, the Philippines should not undermine the 2016 arbitral ruling it had won, and especially the Constitution, which requires that the Philippines shall have full control and supervision in the exploration and exploitation of its natural resources. Any such agreement on joint exploration and exploitation should be done with great prudence and caution.

For their part, the regional and international communities should hold China accountable for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pronouncement that Beijing would “continue to manage contentious issues and promote maritime cooperation through friendly consultation.”

Dindo Manhit is the president of Stratbase ADR Institute.

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