Filipinos view Chinese president's visit with suspicion

Critics question infrastructure deals, Catholic bishops want Duterte to demand respect for Philippine South China Sea claim
Filipinos view Chinese president's visit with suspicion

Protesters march in Manila against the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Philippines on Nov. 20. Activists and tribal groups called for a stop to projects funded by China that allegedly affect tribal communities. (Photo by Jire Carreon)


Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Manila on Nov. 20 for his first state visit to the country amid concern over China's growing economic interest in the Philippines.

One purpose of the Chinese leader's visit is to forge agreements to finance infrastructure projects, amounting to about US$14 billion, almost half of the Philippines' ambitious Build, Build, Build infrastructure program.

China has pledged US$24 billion in loans and investments, but just a tiny portion has come through, which has prompted critics of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to say that he was tricked.

Tribal groups held protests in Manila to voice their concern over the projects — which include dams — that are supposed to affect tribal communities.

The tribal alliance Sandugo said the dam projects would displace tribes from their ancestral lands, "drowning them deeper in poverty, virtually killing their race."

The Philippine Task Force for Indigenous Peoples' Rights warned that the projects would be funded by high interest loans "hiding under the cloak of grants and development assistance."

Independent think tank, the Ibon Foundation, noted that China's Official Development Assistance has been known for stipulating resources and state assets as default payment when a country fails to pay its loans.

Ibon Foundation cited the Sri Lankan government, which was forced to lease its Hambantota Port for 99 years to a Chinese company when it failed to pay its debts.

The Chinese government announced early this year that its investments in the Philippines surged more than five-fold in the first six months of the year after a 67 percent expansion last year.

Chinese investors have been pouring money into online gaming, real estate, service providers and in existing Filipino firms, but are still to bet on large-scale infrastructure or manufacturing.

Protesters march in Manila against a visit by Chinese President, Xi Jinping and China's claim over 90 percent of the South China Sea. (Photo by Jire Carreon)


Relations between Beijing and Manila have warmed since Duterte came to power in 2016. 

The Philippine leader has even set aside a 2016 ruling from an international tribunal that rejected Beijing's expansive claim over the South China Sea.

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At least two Catholic bishops said Xi's visit should be an opportunity for the Philippines to demand that China respect the ruling.

"The Chinese government is a bully to all nations that have a rightful claim to the South China Sea," said Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon.

The prelate said the country's leaders "should take this opportunity to make a polite and respectful protestation to the Chinese president."

"As a sovereign nation, the Philippines should be treated with equal dignity," added Bishop Bastes.

China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea by using a border called the 9-dash line. Beijing has aggressively maintained its own rules as it ignored other countries' claims to the disputed seas under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The convention stipulates that a country's territory extend to 200 nautical miles off their shore. 

The disputed territory is rich in gas and oil reserves, with an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, plus 10 percent of the world's fisheries. 

About 30 percent of the global shipping trade passes through the sea.

Bishop Ruperto Santos of Balanga expressed hope that Xi's visit will result in "respect for our sovereignty, common aspiration for peace, and amicable solutions to the contested islands."

He said he would pray that the Chinese leader would "see the real sentiments of our people," especially those from tribal communities affected by Chinese-funded projects.

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