MANILA – Chinese President Xi Jinping said all the right things during his two-day state visit to the Philippines this week, but critics only saw the country surrendering its claim on disputed areas of the West Philippine Sea (AKA South China Sea) as well as falling deeper into a debt trap that may be impossible to pay.
President Rodrigo Duterte pulled all stops in giving the visiting Chinese leader the warmest possible welcome, going so far as to declare a de facto holiday in the capital city of Manila by clsing all streets where Xi’s party would pass, as well as suspending classes and work in government offices. Xi arrived on Tuesday, Nov. 20, and departed on Wednesday, Nov. 21.
Among the 29 agreements signed during Xi’s visit, the most important one will have the Philippines and China jointly search for oil and gas in the West Philippine Sea without affecting each other’s “sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.”
Upon his arrival at the start of the week, Xi said, “China and the Philippines have a lot of common interests in the South China Sea. We will continue to manage contentious issues and promote maritime cooperation through friendly consultation.”
Despite Xi’s mention of “contentious issues,” President Duterte has avoided any mention of the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague’s decision n favor of the Philippines, which voided China’s claim of ownership over the entire South China Sea. China has refused to accept that decision or even the authority of the court. Duterte even said that China is “already in possession” of the South China Sea.
While the 1987 Constitution dictates that any find with foreign entities must be split 60-40 in favor of the Philippines, the agreement signed in Malacanang is silent on the matter, fueling speculation that Duterte had surrendered control of the disputed waters to the budding superpower that is China.
The Philippines will also be availing of more loans from China for the Duterte administration’s “Build BuildBuild” program as a result of Xi’s visit.
The US, however, had previously warned that developing nations were falling for China’s “debt trap diplomacy.” Once payments for the loans become due and a country is unable to pay the amortizations, China will then demand concessions in order to avoid default.
In such places as Sri Lanka and Djibouti, concessions included surrendering key ports for up to 99 years. Since China now has the world’s largest military, the surrendered ports can be used as military facilities.
In the case of the Philippines, even before Xi’s visit, it was learned that China had built a lighthouse on one of the disputed islets, effectively taking control of property that is closer to the Philippine mainland than to China.
Earlier this year, newly-elected Malaysian prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammed took cognizance of what he saw us one-sided loans from China. He ordered the scrapping of the loans that would have funded what he considered useless infrastructure projects.
Xi said that good neighborliness and friendship was the only choice between his country and the Philippines. He noted that national hero Jose Rizal could trace his roots to China, while a Chinese military hero was actually born in Quezon province.