BEIJING, China: Taking a trip sponsored by The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China and ASEAN-China Center, organized by the China International Publishing Group and the China Report, as well as representing The Manila Times is a unique experience to say the least. Learning about the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is an opportunity one cannot pass. So despite the load of work and the increased noise to herald the oncoming political exercise, a nine-day break was most welcomed.
But it turns out to be a very hectic schedule covering several cities and three provinces in nine days. We visited the three provinces of China: Beijing, Fujian and Guangdong. In Fujian, we covered Fuzhou, Putin, Quanzhou and Xiamen while in Guangdong, we will visit Shantou and Guangzhou. Indeed, China is huge. We traveled by air, land, sea and train. We covered history and culture, trade and industry a well as breakthroughs in R&D, technology and entrepreneurship, among others. We saw the cities, whose economic muscles will define the future of China, the economic strongholds in the municipalities and had several dialogues and conversations with very young and professional political leaders. It seems the future is bright for the young leaders in China.
The landscape in Fujian and Guangdong is made of empty skyscrapers and bustling economic zones dotting the background of mountains and old houses as well as smooth roads and bridges. In fact, as we traveled by land, one can see continuous constructions going on.
Fujian and Guangdong also appears to depart from the haze associated with Beijing. In Fujian and Guangdong, sustainable development seems to have been embraced strategically, perhaps learning from the lessons of Beijing. Interestingly, as an interpreter pointed out, they saw the sun and the blue clouds in Beijing when it closed all offices, declared a week holiday, as it hosted APEC in 2014. The smog in Beijing is due to combined factors of vehicle emission, manufacturing plants and energy supplied by fossil fuels. In Beijing alone, there are some 10 to 15 coal plants supporting the energy requirements of “large number of cement, steel, oil refining and petrification industries that burn a total of 350 million tons of coal per year. About 24.5 percent of the PM2.5 in Beijing comes from those industries.”
Fujian province is adjacent to Hongkong, Macau and Taiwan, with frequent exchanges with Southeast Asian nations. It is home to overseas Chinese and Taiwanese compatriots. It is the origin of China’s historical Maritime Silk Road. It connects China with South Asia, West Asia and West Africa by water. Fujian has been positioned by China as the center of its strategic initiative called, “One Belt, One Road.” Guangdong, on the other hand, is the first in China to “pioneer the reform and opening up” program. Located at the southernmost tip of the main land, it borders the South China Sea and is adjacent to Hongkong and Macau. It is China’s number one economy, “with GDP reaching 6.8 trillion Yuan ($1.1 Trillion) in 2014, accounting for about 10 percent of the national total.”
The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road will cover more than “20 countries and regions that share a broad consensus on enhancing exchanges, friendship, promoting development, safety and stability within the region and beyond. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road requires the following efforts: First, consensus must be reached between major countries along the route to enhance maritime cooperation. Second, countries must engage in pragmatic cooperation along the route in the areas of trade, the economy, culture and infrastructure. In 2012, the trade volume of countries along the route accounted for 17.9 percent of China’s total trade. The contracted turnover in countries along the route accounted for 37.9 percent of China’s overseas contracted turnover. People-to-people exchanges between China and ASEAN recently topped 15 million, while two-way students reached more than 170,000. Third, countries along the route must engage in effective cooperation on ocean and climate change, marine disaster prevention and mitigation, biodiversity preservation and other areas of maritime policy.”
It would have been easy to embrace the “One Belt, One Road” and the Maritime Silk Road if China did not pursue unilaterally the reclamations in seven contested jurisdictions. What is that among friends, if indeed amity was valuable. But we also need to get our acts together and not let the failures of leadership in diplomacy and international trade be the cause of our inability to maneuver as a nation. As China’s leader defined their collective aspiration on building a “community of common destiny,” what has our leader done in the past five years?
Beyond the rhetoric, the name-calling, sable rattling, and the soundbytes as well as the purchase of ships, helicopters and armaments, what are our plans in the years ahead? Surely, BSA3 cannot shake the bamboos to create smoke against a giant. Surely, BSA3 will not allow the country to be a pawn in geopolitical moves of elephants. Surely, there must be a plan for our future as a maritime state, or are these wishful thinking? We have to be proactive as we need to have our shared, collective dream.
Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines geographically are separated from China by water while the rest of ASEAN share land borders with China. If we don’t get our acts together as a nation, we will be overtaken by developments outside of our borders which in a borderless world would be fatal. The market might alone of China is already a huge to consider for the Philippines. Combining that with the ASEAN Economic Community in the Asian Century is strategic for any country in ASEAN. Only problem we have is that our leaders seem unable to see these developments using a different prism. Worst, as a maritime nation, we fail to pursue a plan base on our waters and create development from the fringes. As Confucius once said, “learning without thought is labor lost, thought without learning is perilous.” Where to, Philippines?