Chinese President Xi Jinping called his visit Tuesday to long-time US ally the Philippines a “milestone”, as he aimed to boost blossoming ties on the promise of billions of dollars in backing for mega-projects.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has proven a willing recipient of Beijing’s attentions, declaring shortly after his election in 2016 his nation’s “separation” from former colonial master the US.
Since then Beijing, which is competing with Washington for supremacy in the Pacific, has promised $24 billion in investment and infrastructure loans that the developing nation of 105 million deeply needs.
But over two years later, only a trickle of funding has arrived, prompting critics to question whether Duterte has been duped into pivoting toward China and giving too much ground on the South China Sea dispute.
Xi landed in Manila to a red-carpet welcome at the airport for the first state visit from a Chinese president in 13 years, which Manila hopes will finally net those investment deals.
“For the Philippines, this is more than a reciprocal visit. It is an historic occasion,” Duterte said in welcoming Xi to the presidential palace, referring to his 2016 Beijing visit.
The Chinese leader offered similarly sweeping remarks, saying: “My visit will be a milestone in the history of exchange between our two counties.”
China has disbursed tens of billions of dollars in loans since 2013 as it expands its political influence globally, countering the American hegemony that characterised the post-World War II order, especially in Asia.
However, even before Xi’s arrival, hundreds of protestors descended on the Chinese embassy to voice opposition to closer ties with Beijing.
“Philippines is not for sale,” the marchers chanted, as some brandished signs saying “China out of Philippine waters” in reference to a long-running dispute over the South China Sea.
Critics are most concerned over Duterte’s decision to set aside a major 2016 ruling from an international tribunal that declared as without basis Beijing’s expansive claim over the waterway, in favour of courting Chinese investment.
“The reality is that the Philippines under Duterte may have squandered the most solid legal ground it has against China in the South China Sea conflict,” Senator Leila de Lima, a jailed critic of the president, said in a statement.
Filipinos ‘Pooh-Pooh’ Xi’s visit
A survey of 1,500 adults out Tuesday said 84 percent of Filipinos disagreed with taking a laissez-faire approach on Beijing’s moves to build infrastructure and install military equipment in the sea.
That stance flared onto Philippine Twitter and Facebook, where feeds were flooded Tuesday with Winnie the Pooh memes in a winking expression of anti-China sentiment stirred by Xi’s visit.
The self-described “bear of very little brain” has been used in the past on social media to poke fun at the portly Chinese leader, a joke that has drawn crackdowns from Beijing’s censors.
Filipino analyst Richard Heydarian said China’s pledges induced Manila to “soft-pedal” on the South China Sea issue, but Beijing failed to hold up its end of the bargain.
“We know there was a geopolitical calculation,” he told AFP. “What is the incentive to rush if Duterte has been giving them whatever they want?”
Gregory Wyatt, director for business intelligence at PSA Philippines Consultancy, said big projects face many barriers in the Philippines, like right-of-way issues, regulatory approvals and political dissent.
“The foreign investment has come, the infrastructure loans have not,” he added.
Chinese investments in the Philippines surged more than five-fold in the first six months of the year after a 67 percent expansion last year, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during a Manila visit last month.
Two-way trade also topped 10 percent over both periods, he added.
Chinese investors have poured money into online gaming, real estate, service providers and stakes in existing Filipino firms, but not into large-scale infrastructure or manufacturing, Wyatt said.