Blasted by international media and damned by human rights advocates for alleged extrajudicial killings in the signature illegal drugs war early in his administration, President Rodrigo Duterte suddenly finds his hands full with reasons to boast he is a lot better than just being able to kill drug addicts and drug pushers sans due process.
On Thursday last week, Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang flew into the country for a week-long visit in which he is expected to undertake with Philippine officials the realization of pledges and commitments President Duterte had sought during his visit to China in October last year. These Chinese assurances were top of the agenda of the discussions Vice Premier Yang had with President Duterte in Davao City the day following his arrival.
Already confirmed for signing by Yang and Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon M. Lopez is an agreement whereby the People’s Republic of China (PROC) commits to import Philippine agricultural products and fruits like pineapples, bananas, durian, avocado, coconut, mango, dragon fruit, mangosteen, marang, rice, coffee, cacao, fisheries, chicken and duck meat. Total amount of the import deal is $1 billion.
Of bananas, the Philippines is on record as the second biggest supplier worldwide, next to Ecuador. And for the Asian demand, the country supplies 95 percent. However, Chinese share of that demand was written off when China imposed a ban on the importation of Philippine bananas as a consequence of the heightening of tension over the country’s claim to the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). But when President Duterte visited China in October last year and the Chinese leadership appreciated the Philippine President’s pursuit of a less contentious approach to the South China Sea conflict, Chinese bans on the importation of Philippine agricultural products were lifted.
Though definitely, this is not to say that Philippines-China relations, in a manner of saying, are going bananas. Far from it, those relations appear to have gone golden, as manifested by the manifold glad tidings Vice Premier Yang has brought with him, all geared for the economic development of the Philippines.
There is the tourism package for one. I recall that as a consequence of the Scarborough Shoal standoff that began in April 2012, China issued a travel advisory for its nationals against touring the Philippines. Thereafter, the Chinese market for Philippine tourism dwindled to very insignificant levels. That slump in Chinese arrivals in the Philippines was sustained all the way through the period of the deliberations by the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague on the Philippine suit over the Scarborough Shoal evidently instigated by the United States against China. Expectedly, the final arbitration ruling by the PCA in 2015 which was unfavorable to China served to fuel seemingly continued Chinese animosity toward the Philippines. But quite in contrast to his utter disregard for civil decorum in addressing critics of his drugs war with invectives, President Duterte’s approach to the South China Sea tension was done with exquisite equanimity so uncharacteristic of one easily given to bad temper. Duterte’s diplomatic savvy turned out to be a masterful stroke of excellent statesmanship. He would not insist on enforcing the PCA ruling, nor would he abandon it. He would only request the Chinese to refrain from stopping Filipinos from fishing in waters they used to venture in for generations – which, after all, was about the only disturbance the Chinese did beginning 2012. This was Duterte’s attitude toward the issue which he got across to the Chinese leaders in his China visit in October last year. In a gesture of reassuring reciprocity, China not only did grant Duterte’s request but also lifted the three-year-old travel ban to the Philippines. Whereupon Chinese arrivals in the Philippines perked up tremendously, registering 670,000, third in overall ranking behind Korea at some 1.4 million and the United States at 870,000. Chinese tourist arrival in the Philippines for 2017 is projected to breach the one million mark, or an increase of 49 percent over the previous figures.
But what seems amazing is that the projection is not a handiwork of Philippine tourism authorities but of the Chinese. In other words, the Chinese themselves are doing the spade work in ensuring that in the current year, Chinese tourist arrivals in the Philippines will surpass one million, possibly to replace South Korea on the top slot.
In anticipation of this huge volume of Chinese tourists coming to the Philippines, the hospitality sector so-called, meaning hotels, is on the upswing as well. An example is the Double Dragon Properties developer group that recently announced plans for a P6.6 billion ($131 million) expansion aimed at doubling its room capacity to 2,000 by 2020.
When it rains it pours, and the Philippine tourism weather over the immediately coming years will definitely be one for a heavy Chinese tourist rainfall.
In terms of revenues, that will mean one truly whooping windfall. Computed at an average of P3,659 per day tourist expenditure, which is an official figure by the Department of Tourism, one million Chinese tourists in the Philippines in 2017 will be pumping into the country’s economy revenues in the total amount of P3,659,000,000 daily, or for an average of six days stay per tourist, just multiply that amount by that many days and you get the P21 billion plus projected Chinese contribution to Philippine revenues in 2017.
But tourism has its imperatives impacting on other sectors of the economy, particularly infrastructure. According to a study conducted by the CLSA, a research firm based in Hong Kong, the opening of the Chinese market to Philippine tourism could account for 21 percent contribution of the tourism sector to the country’s GDP. The CLSA report stated that while the Philippines has not quite realized its full tourism potential, efficient implementation of tourism infrastructure with easy access to foreign investments in tourism projects would ultimately get it done.
As Vice Premier Yang’s visit would indicate, China’s interest in the Philippines extends from commerce in agricultural products and active engagement in the country’s tourism industry all the way to infrastructure development and finance. The Philippine infrastructure program valued at $4.4 billion consists of 12 large-scale projects which have been opened up for Beijing to buy into, among which being the development of the tourism potential of the Pasacao and Balatan coastal regions in the province of Camarines Sur. For the Manila metropolis, there are plans to construct two more bridges across the Pasig river; and in Mindanao, a railway would loop around the island with interconnectivity extending all the way to Northern Luzon.
“We are now seeing the fruits of President Rodrigo Duterte’s reaching out to China. Doors to more economic opportunities and people-to-people exchanges are wider more than ever, now that ties between Manila and Beijing have seen a new day,” Tourism Secretary Wanda Corazon Teo said in a statement.
The DOT executive could not have noted however that as President Duterte was conferencing with Vice Premier Yang in Davao City on Friday, an impeachment complaint was filed against him in Congress and Vice President Leni Robredo was speaking, through a video presentation, to a conference of a United Nations group in Vienna tackling human rights abuses, exposing what she put forward as 7,000 victims of Duterte’s extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. According to Bobi Tiglao, both moves were aimed at the ultimate ouster of President Duterte.
To President Duterte’s thrust to greatness, therefore, there is just this one obstacle, but a truly monstrous one which no Philippine President has ever learned to surmount yet: the United States of America.
Pray President Duterte learns how to do it this time.