The Philippines needs a better relationship with China.
After years of being firmly nestled within the American sphere of influence, and losing, through political, diplomatic and military miscalculation, the upper hand in contested areas in the West Philippine Sea, it is apparent that an eyeball-to-eyeball standoff with our giant northeastern neighbor will get us nowhere.
A new tack is needed, and that is precisely what President Duterte said he wants. That the leader of 100 million or so Filipinos wants a better deal for the Philippines, there is little doubt. But he must make sure that any deal with China is fair and equitable.
A cursory look at the deals China has struck with its other friends in Asean, namely those with Cambodia and Laos (not to mention the many oil deals it has forged with impoverished African countries) indicate that the world’s second largest economy can behave just like
Uncle Sam when it comes to bending less powerful nations to its will.
This week, China is poised to throw a few billion dollars of investments and business deals at the Philippines, at levels that may surpass the kind of deals the US government has brought in over the last six years.
These inflows are much needed in some sectors that failed to keep up with the growth of the economy under the Aquino administration. We’re talking about areas like the creaking transportation infrastructure where commuter trains break down on a daily basis, antiquated roads are clogged with vehicles, and airports groan to accommodate millions of domestic and international travelers.
And when it is in the interest of China to take on massive infrastructure undertakings, its level of commitment and political will to execute is second to none in the world.
Just consider what it has built on the artificial islands, which it has also built, almost from scratch, and contrast it with our own efforts to address our own shortcomings. Decades after the Ninoy Aquino International Airport was declared inadequate for the needs of the growing travel market, the Philippine government continues to hem and haw about building a new aviation hub. China, on the other hand, needed only a little over six months to build a 10,000-foot runway, with facilities that can support airliners (or military jets, if needed) on a reef in the Spratlys, virtually “in the middle of nowhere” as far as challenging engineering requirements are concerned.
“Caveat emptor,” let the buyer beware, is an often heard adage when binding agreements are forged. But in the case of the deals that the Philippines and China will seal this week, a more appropriate admonition would be “caveat venditor,” let the seller beware.
It is premature to describe the Duterte administration’s stance as a sellout to China (as some of its critics declare), but it is indisputable that friendship among nations always comes at a price. Sometimes the price is monetary, and sometimes the method of exchange comes in less easily quantifiable forms, currency that can be traded on the international arena, like territory, military and economic alliances, or the mere shift of a country’s diplomatic weight to favor one country over another.
Closer ties with either the United States or China will always come at a price for a country like ours.
Yes, the Philippines needs a better relationship with China, and by all means, let us rebuild that creaking bridge between these two great nations. But our leaders must rebuild it with both eyes open, cognizant of the well-established fact that nothing ever comes free in this world, especially not $3 billion worth of economic benefits and business deals presented on a silver platter in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
In Mr. Duterte’s effort to correct what is perceived to be the Philippines’ overly submissive stance toward the United States, he must take care not to enter into another submissive relationship with a new friend and ally.
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