Ma. Lourdes N. Tiquia

THE late Senator Leticia Ramos Shahani used to hammer the point: “The Philippines is a maritime nation, we should claim it and own it. We are not just archipelagic but also maritime.” It is in this light that we should push for the further build-up of our nautical highway, which was launched during President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s term. The nautical highway provides another means of transporting people and products from any point in the three-island chain of the country, as well as connect the archipelago for purposes of domestic and international tourism. The nautical highway should be complementary to the rail systems that the Duterte administration plans to build.

Our interests as a maritime nation cover shipping and commerce, navigation, and naval affairs, including the contribution of the maritime industry to the international economy. Thus, an archipelagic and maritime approach for the Philippines would include both inward and outward looking perspectives in protecting our interests.

What are our geographical advantages? We are an archipelago “composed of 7, 641 islands with a total coastline length of about 18,000 kilometers. The total land to water ratio is 1:7, with land area of approximately 300,000 square kilometers and a total water area of 2.2 million sq km.” We are bounded by the “South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) on the west, the Philippine Sea on the east and the Celebes Sea on the southwest. The Philippines shares maritime borders with Taiwan to the north, Vietnam to the west, Palau to the east and Malaysia and Indonesia to the south.” Bays and coastal waters “cover an area of 266,000 sq km, while oceanic waters cover 1,934,000 sq km. The total length of the coastline is 36,289 km.”

The flip of the coin is that the Philippines, as a prime maritime nation, “produces outstanding seafaring talent. Filipino seafarers are in a class of their own…Their advanced skills have proven valuable for many Western and Japanese ship operators and owners, making the country one of the most trustworthy sources of human capital.” We even have schools and training institutes for seafarers all over the country.

Imagine therefore a Philippines with railways along the interior and by the coastlines, connecting to a modern network of ports with warehousing and cold storage facilities? Imagine these being built in the next five years that would have an impact on cost and accessibility ensuring the food produced in far Mindanao reaches the Cordilleras and vice versa? Imagine the country as a huge logistics hub right smack in our geographical position, the gateway to Asia and Asean? Indeed, that would be a revolutionary moment for all of us, when we are able to convert our advantages into one wheel of synergistic business hubs.

As a maritime nation, we position ourselves as a natural home for multinational maritime companies and organizations. That the Philippines is a country with skills, innovation and expertise to meet the needs of international trade. And that highest standards in safety and environmental protection are integrated in our maritime protocols.

Part of building our maritime capabilities is decongesting Metro Manila by pushing it outside of the National Capital Region by a network of roads, ports and railway systems. Developing these networks would lead to the creation of new townships and refocusing economic activities at the fringes. The fringes of the Philippines are poor and rural. By connecting these areas to the road, rail and port grid, we bring economic activities where it is needed most.

The volume of international container shipments in and out of the Philippines is low in comparison to Asia’s major export economies. We are unable to maximize the service because of bad infrastructure, expensive fees and a very unstable regulatory environment.

The total Philippine container traffic is “less than 5 million TEUs and is growing very slowly”. The terminals at Manila (MICT and South Harbor) handle about 3 million TEUs/year. Manila is ranked 90th in the world in tonnage volume and ranked 36th in container traffic. Significant investments have been made in developing Batangas, Cagayan de Oro (PHIVIDEC), Davao, and Subic international ports. But while the combined capacity of these new ports has almost doubled, with considerable capacity for future growth, the volume of the main ports in Manila is not spread efficiently.

Crucial to the development of the road, rail, air grid is the role of the oligarchs in the country. Would the oligarchs of air, ports and rails allow such integration at the cost of their bottoms? Would the operators of the Manila ports (South Harbor and MICT) agree to shift main activities to Batangas and Subic? Would they allow integration with ecozones across the country? Would LGUs allow conversion of government lots into warehousing facilities? Would cold storage facilities be installed in food producing regions and integrate the same in main lines of the network? This means a stable energy supply to operate the cold storages 24/7. Can packaging centers be created and services subsidized along the grid so that food producers are assisted in making their products competitive in the domestic and global markets?