A JOURNEY of a thousand miles begins with a single step is a universal truth that resonates beyond the idea of travel. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu must have meant it to be deeper and wider than that, to apply to various developments that would certainly include the Davao City-General Santos-Bitung roll-on, roll-off route that President Rodrigo Duterte and Indonesian President Joko Widodo inaugurated on Sunday in Davao, the morning after the 30th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit took place in Manila.
The new route is an important commitment that the Philippines, as host and chair of Asean 2017, committed to neighbor and fellow Asean founder Indonesia, when Mr. Duterte visited Jakarta in September last year, to lower the cost and shipping time of goods between the two countries. Certainly, it is one small but significant step the Philippines has made in contributing to greater regional development.
Small steps like this new Ro-Ro route will definitely redound to significant and far-reaching developments in trade and investment. As Mr. Duterte pointed out, it is the first of many routes that will be established under the international Ro-Ro network envisioned by Asean leaders to expand business opportunities for the 10-member regional bloc.
“It will not only connect us to the rest of Asean, it will also physically integrate our archipelago with the rest of the region. We are hopeful that by opening new ports and exploring possible routes, we will stimulate trade, tourism, other areas of development among Asean member-states,” the President said.
Even if the shipping route was initiated by Indonesia and the Philippines, the extent of its impact is definitely beyond the two nations.
The Davao-General Santos-Bitung RoRo Shipping Service, as it is officially called, covers the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area, or the BIMP-EAGA cooperation initiative launched in 1994 to accelerate economic development in areas that are geographically distant from their national capitals, yet in strategic proximity to each other. The World Bank regards the area as one of the world’s most resource-rich regions, including as it does the heart of the Borneo and Sulu-Sulawesi marine ecoregion.
According to estimates by the Mindanao Development Authority, traders may save up to $1,500, or P74,000 per 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) on the new route. A TEU is a container van that measures 20 feet in length.
Shipments on the M/V Super Shuttle RoRo 12, operated by the Asian Marine Transport Corp., charges $700, or P34,713 per TEU, along the Davao-GenSan-Bitung route. By comparison, the Davao-GenSan-Manila-Manado via Jakarta route charges $2,200, or P109,098 per TEU.
“The opening of the route is a more cost and time-efficient alternative to the usual Manila to Jakarta to Bitung route, which would take about three to five weeks of shipping time. In contrast, direct shipping through the Davao-GenSan-Bitung route will take only one day and a half of sailing (excluding port stay),” according to a post by the Mindanao Development Authority on the Asean 2017 website.
The initial list of goods identified by traders taking the route include matured coconut, copra, corn, feed ingredients, lumber, cement, high value crops, vegetables, meat, peanuts, aqua products, charcoal, soya, coffee beans and sugar. These are products needed to sustain daily life as well as the housing and construction industry.
This is the kind of infrastructure development—however small it may seem compared with the $5.3 trillion of global trade that passes through the greater Asean waterways each year—that the Philippines must continue to initiate and pursue with its neighbors, small steps that in the end may resonate a thousand times more in magnitude towards genuine regional growth.