• China’s secret to success: Build roads and bridges first

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    TITA C. VALDERAMA

    BEIJING: China’s massive infrastructure program in a way puts to shame the Duterte administration’s P9-trillion “Build, Build, Build” program.

    As you step out of the plane from Manila, a huge airport welcomes you to Beijing. Our flight was disembarked in Terminal 1 and we had to take a short train ride to Terminal 3 to get our baggage.

    To get out of the airport, you have several choices of transport – train, subway, taxis, rental cars, buses, limos, etcetera.

    It is so unlike Manila where we hear and read of too many sob stories about how fellow Filipinos and foreign tourists fall victim to airport thieves and overcharging cab drivers.

    I arrived here early Saturday for a media workshop and forum on China’s One Road, One Belt (OBOR) initiative to connect not only with its neighbors in Asia but with other parts of the world as well.

    The Philippines, however, is not on the route of either the China-initiated Maritime Silk Road nor the roads and railways under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

    China’s massive spending on infrastructure has been quite obvious in the past three decades. The Beijing I see now is way too different from the Beijing I saw the first time in 1988 when I was with the media entourage that covered the visit of then President Cory Aquino.

    The only things I could recognize in this country of 1.3 billion people are the more popular tourist sites such as the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

    The large-scale infrastructure development projects in Beijing gives me the feeling that the Philippines has indeed much catching up to do with its neighbors in terms of building more modern infrastructures that would create jobs, attract investments, and improve lives.

    Well, much has also changed in the Philippine infrastructure landscape in the past 30 years, but the pace of development has not been as fast as China’s. At least, efforts are under way to somehow catch up.

    The Philippines is deficient in all types of infrastructure such as roads and bridges, airports and ports, railways, mass transit, among others.

    The secret to success, it would seem, is to build roads and bridges first, and the rest will follow.

    Professor Zhang Yansheng, chief researcher at the China Center for International Economic Exchange, said in a lecture at Tsinghua University’s PBC School of Finance, the BRI was a brainchild of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping who started more than 30 years ago China’s policy of openness and connectivity.

    One positive sign that the Philippines is catching up is the government’s plan to spend at least P900 billion in public infrastructure projects in 2018, and recently the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) approved a plan for the country’s first subway system for implementation by 2018 with an estimated cost of P355.6 billion.

    Mara Warwick, country director of the World Bank in the Philippines, said at The Manila Times business forum last August 18 in Manila that our country can learn from China’s decades of infrastructure development.

    As Warwick noted, China and the Philippines are way different in terms of resources, land size, population and political system, and their infrastructure needs are not the same, both countries face similar problems such as the rapid pace of urbanization coupled with the ongoing economic opportunities to a geographically dispersed rural population, who are mostly poor.

    One of the tips Warwick shared was about empowering local governments in planning and executing infrastructure projects to make sure that the projects in communities are compatible with their needs.

    She said that while the Philippines has a five-year development plan that sets the national development goals and strategic targets, it could learn from China’s plan that goes with more strategic and more focused plans and initiatives, taking into account the capacities of communities.

    In the World Bank’s Philippine Urbanization Review, she noted that many localities have either not completed their land use or urban development plans or if they have, they are already outdated.

    “The Philippines is on an exciting path that gives infrastructure investment the necessary priority. The “Build, Build, Build’ program creates an opportunity for the country to not only build infrastructure assets, but to also create a strong and well-capacitated system of infrastructure delivery, including at the local level, that can provide the basis for the Philippines’ infrastructure program long into the future,” said Warwick who is familiar with China’s infrastructure program, having worked in Beijing for years as a senior urban environment specialist prior to her posting in Manila.

    In the initial lectures here on Sunday at Tsinghua University’s PBC School of Finance, the crucial role of local governments in drawing up development plans in creating economic zones and the roads and bridges connecting China to the rest of the world was heavily emphasized.

    In the past few years, the Philippine government has been catching up from years of neglect in infrastructure investments, which used to be at below 3 percent of GDP. In 2014, it hit 5 percent but the Duterte administration targets higher investments of 7 percent of GDP to keep pace with the fast-rising developments in the region.

    The Philippines has recently been tagged as the fastest growing economy in Asean as its infrastructure spending goes up, thereby opening its market to more investment opportunities which result in more jobs, more income, and better lives to more of its over 100 million people.

    China’s secret is out: build roads, bridge the gaps between the rich and poor, and economic development follows.

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