In late October, the Philippines made a significant decision to withdraw from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), marking a pivotal moment in their relationship with China and potentially reshaping the country’s approach to infrastructure and foreign policy. This withdrawal came as a response to multiple factors, including the lack of response from Beijing to funding requests for crucial railway projects. In this article, we will delve into the reasons behind the Philippines’ withdrawal from the BRI, the escalating tensions in the South China Sea, and the potential implications of this decision.
Funding Delays and Withdrawal
One of the primary reasons cited for the Philippines’ withdrawal from the BRI was the funding delays it faced for several key projects. These projects included the construction of three rail lines, two in Luzon and one in Mindanao. China had pledged a substantial investment of nearly $5 billion for these projects, which were considered vital for the development of the country’s infrastructure. However, these delays, coupled with the lack of response from China, raised concerns about the sustainability of the projects.
According to Don McLain Gill, a geopolitical analyst and lecturer in international studies at De La Salle University in Manila, the decision to withdraw from these projects could be attributed to concerns about their sustainability and the growing apprehension about Beijing’s approach as a neighbor. This withdrawal was not solely based on territorial tensions in the South China Sea, which have been a longstanding issue between the two nations.
South China Sea Tensions
The South China Sea has been a focal point of tensions between the Philippines and China, and the situation has been exacerbated in recent years. One of the contentious areas is the Second Thomas Shoal, also known as Ayungin Shoal, which is part of the contested Spratly Islands. This area has been at the center of disputes, with both nations staking their claims.
China’s aggressive expansion in the South China Sea, including the construction of military installations on shoals and reefs, has been a cause of concern. In 2016, an international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines, stating that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea lacked a basis in international law. However, tensions have escalated with the election of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who has adopted a less China-friendly stance and moved closer to the United States on strategic policy.
Incidents like the Chinese coast guard ship ramming a Philippine fishing vessel and allegations of military-grade laser use by China have further strained relations. These actions have raised concerns about China’s intentions in the region, and they have prompted the Philippines to reconsider its economic and strategic partnerships.
China’s Economic Projects and Alternatives
The stalling of China-funded projects in the Philippines has raised questions about the viability of these endeavors. Philippine Senator Sherwin Gatchalian suggested that tensions in the disputed shoal could be a factor contributing to the delay in these projects. However, Don McLain Gill pointed out that this delay could potentially benefit the Philippines in the long run, as it opens the door for the country to seek alternative sources of funding for its infrastructure projects.
In light of these developments, the Philippines has begun exploring partnerships with other nations such as Japan and India for funding railway projects. This shift in focus towards diversifying economic and development partners could enhance the Philippines’ long-term development agenda and reduce its dependence on China.
Economic and Trade Relations
Despite the withdrawal from the BRI, the Philippines and China have maintained close economic relations. China has been a significant trade partner for the Philippines, and it has ranked as the country’s second-largest export economy. However, it’s important to note that Chinese foreign direct investments in the Philippines have not been substantial. Therefore, the discontinuation of BRI investments is unlikely to have a significant impact on the country’s overall investments.
Nonetheless, the growing tensions in the South China Sea could jeopardize government-to-government partnerships and hinder the Philippines’ ability to secure official development assistance from Beijing. The Philippines is actively seeking alternative sources of funding, including from international institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, to ensure the sustainability of its infrastructure projects.
A Multi-Dimensional Approach
In conclusion, the Philippines’ decision to withdraw from China’s Belt and Road Initiative represents a significant shift in its approach to economic and foreign policy. It is indicative of the country’s willingness to diversify its economic partners and reduce its dependence on China, particularly in the context of escalating tensions in the South China Sea. The nation’s pursuit of alternative funding sources and a multi-dimensional approach to safeguard its interests reflects the evolving dynamics of the region and the Philippines’ strategic considerations.
This withdrawal marks a pivotal moment in the Philippines’ foreign policy and infrastructure development, and it will be intriguing to observe how these changes unfold and impact the nation’s long-term trajectory. The Philippines is navigating a complex geopolitical landscape and making strategic choices to secure its sovereignty and development goals.