By Arjay L. Balinbin and
Camille A. Aguinaldo, Reporters
CHINESE President Xi Jinping on Wednesday wrapped up his two-day state visit to the Philippines, laying down to leaders of both chambers of the Philippine Congress his plans for the country, including creating more jobs for Filipinos, and a reaffirmation of stronger friendship between the Philippines and China.
President Rodrigo R. Duterte and Mr. Xi witnessed the exchange of 29 signed deals at Malacañang on Tuesday, most of which were memoranda of understanding (MoUs) covering a wide range of development initiatives on energy, infrastructure, agriculture, education, trade, monetary, and humanitarian assistance, among others.
Analysts sought for comment on Wednesday said these MoUs are mere “concepts” for now.
“The MoUs are just exploratory documents, but what is worth waiting for is how Congress will respond once these become agreements. We have to remember that all these agreements will not be binding unless Congress authorizes them. The role of Congress is to reaffirm whether all these agreements signed by the President are within the parameters of our Constitution,” University of Santo Tomas political science professor Marlon M. Villarin said in a phone interview.
For his part, international studies professor Renato C. de Castro of De La Salle University said these MoUs are similar to what were signed during Mr. Duterte’s first visit in Beijing in 2016 when he first “announced the country’s pivot to China.”
“Two years later, nothing much has been accomplished,” he said in a phone interview, adding that only a fraction of China’s loan pledges worth US$24 billion was released.
Ateneo Policy Center research fellow Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco said the “Chinese won’t even see the MoUs as merely a preliminary step.”
“I expect the signing of these MoUs will be packaged to them as essentially a done deal. And they will no longer be bothered to think otherwise,” he said in an email.
For his part, Union Bank of the Philippines chief economist Ruben Carlo O. Asuncion said the signing of the MoUs was “really tricky.”
“At least, there is some sort of paper that all parties can go back to. But, that’s really all there is to it. It’s very important that the Philippines be aware of what these supposed agreements really mean and how it can take advantage in the future,” he also said in an email.
Mr. Asuncion added that the visit actually “opens up economic opportunities for the country,” adding that “China is going to be the biggest economic power in the world in the next few years.”
“In terms of strategic sense, the Philippines is in the best position to be on the good side of the future’s biggest economy,” he also said.
Mr. de Castro said, “There is a degree of reluctance [on both sides] and there might be a bureaucratic inertia, and I think they are still having issues regarding the joint development on oil and gas. China wants the joint development but the administration is still wary, so they just settled for an MoU.”
For his part, Mr. Villarin said: “The signing of the MoUs [on oil and gas development] on the part of China is a clear admission and recognition of our sovereign rights or ownership over those contested islands and islets [in the West Philippine Sea].”
Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo said that copies of the MoU on oil and gas development and other matters could not be released as of yesterday because the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), “which is the Office of Primary Responsibility during the state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the country, [was] still preoccupied with activities on Day 2 of the Chinese leader’s visit.”
Mr. Yusingco for his part said, “Filipinos should not see these MoUs as the final product. We have to push the Duterte administration to be more transparent about their dealings with China, especially matters covered by the MoUs. I expect the DFA to show us the details of the proposed agreement, and listen to what we have to say…. Ramming these agreements on us will be a big mistake.”
The challenge now, Mr. Yusingco added, “is to bring this issue onto the campaign discourse.”
“We must take Senatorial and Congressional candidates to task about our country’s pivot to China; we must pressure them to reveal their stand on these MoUs and with the broader China policy,” he also said.
Citing the latest Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey report that said 84% of Filipinos reject the government’s “inaction” on the South China Sea disputes, Mr. Villarin said this issue, which is “both political and economic,” can be a “referendum” whether it will have an impact on the 2019 midterm elections.
Mr. Xi’s visit, Mr. Villarin added, “was a show of economic strength through China’s strong political and economic relationship with the Philippines.”
“They were straight to the business. Their gesture was a show of force, how economically strong and how politically influential they are when it comes to their relations with their neighboring countries,” he said. “The visit shows a good indicator on the diplomacy of the Philippines; because regardless of our economic, political, and social differences, both heads of states are still open to political and economic dialogues.”
Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III said in his statement following his meeting with Mr. Xi that “there is certainly much more that binds the Philippines and China together than what may divide the two, and it is in the spirit of friendship that the Philippine delegation welcomed His Excellency Xi to the Philippines.”
The Senate leader also said in his statement that President Xi “laid down to the members of Congress his future plans for Filipinos, which include increasing job opportunities for Filipino teachers and nurses; multiplying mutual visits from 1 Million to 2 Million; and opening up free trade to the Philippines, among others.”
For her part, House Speaker Gloria M. Arroyo said: “On the part of the House of Representatives, to help maximize the benefits of increased joint activity with China, our legislative agenda is focused on areas that are essential to economic activity such as generating fiscal resources to improve our country’s infrastructures. Going forward, implementation will now be the key to maximizing the benefits of growing economic trade and investment relations between our two countries. In this area, the traditional oversight function of the legislative will be useful in encouraging our implementers from the Executive Branch so that they can maintain focus and strive for maximum results in the shortest possible time.”
In the joint statement of the Philippines and China, both sides “agreed that the milestone visit of President Xi Jinping has contributed to the advancement of friendship and cooperation” between the two countries.
“President Xi Jinping appreciated the warm and friendly hospitality accorded to him and his delegation by President Duterte and the Philippine government, and extended an invitation to President Duterte to attend the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation to be held in Beijing, China in April 2019. President Duterte accepted the invitation with pleasure.”