NANNING, China—Although complicated, the fueling tensions over the disputed maritime territories between China and the Philippines are seen to be just a temporary obstacle to the economic growth and cooperation of both countries, a Chinese professor said.
Prof. Hu Jianghua from Guangxi University of Finance and Economics in Nanning, China told Filipino reporters that the ongoing territorial row between the two countries is just a short-term impediment to the economic partnership that the two countries are trying to forge.
“Both the Chinese businessmen and Filipino businessmen, they are focused. Their attention is to put on the presence of common interest and business profit,” Hu said through a translator. “So I think that the political problem should not be the obstacle to our fundamental economic interest.”
Hu explained that “business is business”—despite the feud over the disputed waters, the Philippines and China will continue to have sound economic and trade relations, which is more important for both countries.
Based on the data by the Department of Trade and Industry, China is the Philippines’ second largest source of imports and third largest export destination. Philippine exports to China, meanwhile, increased by 11 percent in 2010 from 2000, according to research director Dr. Dan Steinbock.
In a report by Philexport, Chinese projects in the Philippines grew by 63.2 percent or $1.02 billion in 2012.
The professor made the remarks in one of the lectures at the two-week Economic and Trade seminar for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Journalists held last June 18 to 30 in Nanning. The assembly was organized by the China-Asean Expo secretariat and sponsored by China’s Ministry of Commerce.
With the rapid economic growth that China and Southeast Asia demonstrated in the past few years, Hu explained that it is imperative for the region to build stronger bilateral economic and trade cooperation for a more permanent and lasting progress.
“The political issues are the effect to some extent of the bilateral economic cooperation but the focus of attention of the businessmen of China and the Philippines are focused on the pursuit of the common interest,” he said.
“Also, there are expectations for the government of both sides to solve the critical issues and problems and create more favorable business environment for them.”
So far, the maritime territorial dispute has no direct effect yet on the economic relations between the two countries, except when China imposed restriction on the importation of Philippine bananas last year after the Scarborough Shoal standoff erupted. China then claimed that the banana shipments were infested with bugs.
The restriction has eased, though, as Chinese quarantine officials informed the Philippines that the quality of bananas has improved. To date, China remains as the third biggest importer of Cavendish bananas, next to Japan and South Korea.
The economic exchanges between China and the Philippines is in relatively good shape. Ministry of Commerce Department of Asian Affairs Director Li An said in one of the lectures during the same seminar that the bilateral trade between the two countries are increasing.
“The political relationship between the countries is not very good,” he said. “But from the point of view of trade and economic cooperation, I believe in recent years, the bilateral cooperation has been fairly increasing. The figures concerning the bilateral trade have been great.”
In fact, the Philippines is one of China’s major foreign direct investments (FDI) source among the Asean countries next to Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. The Philippines’ FDI in China was recorded at $130 million in 2012.
However, Li said that the Philippine government should exert more efforts to attract more Chinese investors to the country. According to the DTI, Chinese investments in the country last year only reached $65.45 million, which is about half of the Philippines’ FDI in China.
According to Li, there have been no considerable investments made by Chinese investors in the Philippines compared to other Asean countries since 2005. Most of China’s FDI is concentrated in Singapore, Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos.
Just recently, DTI Secretary Gregory L. Domingo urged Chinese businessmen to invest in the Philippines.
“Since China has more money than the Philippines, we hope that Chinese will invest more in the Philippines,” he said during a Philippine-China business forum in April.
Besides China and the Philippines, there are four other countries claiming parts of the West Philippine Sea (referred to as the South China Sea by China). These are Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
The maritime territory is a home for the world’s biggest coral reefs and hundreds of species of fish and marine animals. It is also believed to contain unexploited reserves of oil and natural gas.
Hu noted that both governments should appropriately handle territorial disputes by strengthening dialogues and maintaining consultations on political issues as this is vital to promote peace and stability in the region.
Other entities like non-government organizations can also play a role in building relationships between Chinese and Filipino investors.
The suggestion is easier said than done, though, as the conflict has become tougher and tougher. Since tensions broke out last year, China has strengthened security around the area it claims while the Philippines recently launched military exercises around the area together with U.S. forces.
Add to that the “testy exchanges” that Philippine Foreign Affairs Sec. Albert del Rosario and his counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, engaged in last week during the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Brunei.
Now, it is a tough challenge for both parties—who are bound by their long historical and cultural relations—to ease the tension for a more strategic and long-lasting cooperation.