Manila, 03 October 2022
The second installment of the 2022 EconSecurity Talks titled Situationer of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia was launched on Thursday, 29 September 2022 at 10:00 am (Philippine Standard Time) via Zoom. Featured speakers include Dr. Alvin Camba, Assistant Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver; Dr. Aaron Jed Rabena, program convenor at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress in Manila and Associate Fellow at the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations; and Ms. Irene Chan, an independent researcher based in Singapore.
The webinar examines the gains of the Belt and Road Initiative of China, particularly, in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. Along with the negative implications of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to the receiving countries. Under the current state of our globalized economy and foreign coordinations, it is crucial to understand how the Philippines can secure its economy, politics, and policies amidst the discrepancies on the program, impacts and more.
Dr. Vinzenz Huzel, Resident representative at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Philippines, opened the webinar by emphasizing that the Belt and Road Initiative is a global program that affects not only Asia but also Europe and Africa. In the Philippines the Build Build Build program is a part of this program and this has shaped and reshaped infrastructure, development, politics, socio-cultural and ethnic sectors, environment, labor conditions and rights. In conclusion, Dr. Huzel emphasized that “against the current rapidly changing backdrop of global politics, it is important to re-examine the Belt and Road Initiative and to critically examine the opportunities and the risks” of the program.
Dr. Alvin Camba, the keynote speaker, revolved his discussion on three arguments on the impacts of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its future directions.
1. Financier of first resort of the revealed priorities of national elites
Dr. Camba said that globally China has been the first resort of big ticket and foreign investment projects. Which reveals the willingness of the BRI program to fund the revealed priorities of national elites and its unmatched capacity to lend as compared to other traditional lenders. The program is also used as a platform of the national elites to widen their political power.
2. Uneven progress of BRI projects depend on host country, institutions, political, and project type
He also said that China and Japan projects are difficult to compare due to the difference in the type of projects, institutions, and receiving countries. Furthermore, the BRI projects are defined by the national politics and its progress depends on the capacities and local elites.
3. Economic and political impact depend on host country’s institutions
Dr. Camba emphasized that BRI and Chinese projects flow into existing industrial strategies and political structures based on the negotiation between China and the host country. This resulted in the clear economic, social, and ethnic political impacts.
Regarding the Philippines, Dr. Camba stated: “I’m predicting that Marcos will push the Philippines closer to China. [...] I would say the political priorities of Marcos align well with China.” He clarified that President Marcos has mentioned ties with the United States but Dr. Camba believes that no president of the Philippines can do without the United States in some capacity.
Dr. Camba concluded that China’s economic gravity will continue in Southeast Asia, especially, in the sectors of infrastructure, manufacturing, commercial ties, etc. In terms of politics there might be ”pushback” against China in some countries and the question on the relationships of Taiwan, United States, and the South China Sea is still looming.
“There is a lot to improve in the Philippines and Southeast Asia in how we think about China [...]. Strengthen the capacity of journalists, politicians, analysts, and civil society. Finally, we need to strengthen parts of the economy to harness Belt and Road Initiative projects. Like what Indonesia has done to some degree, they have harnessed BRI to pursue industrialization, and increase value added in their economies. I would say in the Philippines it’s time to do the same.”
As a reactor, Dr. Aaron Jed Rabena, the program Convenor at the Asia-Pacific Pathways, emphasized the importance of defining the scope and definition of BRI based on the actual Chinese documents and sources. To give emphasis on the over-all aspects of the project. He also added that there are five important connectivities under the BRI; namely: policy, trade and investment, financial integration, socio-cultural, and infrastructure connectivities. This is also the reason why the Chinese embassy has touted for greater policy coordination, trade investments, policy agendas, people-to-people exchange, and financial agreement. Dr. Rabena stressed that “of the BRI’s five connectivities, foreign investment – Chinese investment – in infrastructure most often takes the political hit in the Philippines.” This results in the project being bombarded by various criticisms from different sectors. In addition to this there are also constraining factors that affect the progress of BRI projects; namely: path dependent mentality about unsuccessful Chinese projects, developments in the South China Sea continues to cast shadow, and extensive political narrative that the BRI is a geopolitical and hegemonic tool. He also added some policies to improve the BRI perspective of the people: both China and the Philippines can leverage the green silk road, China can mitigate the risks by ensuring every BRI project in the country is transparent, China can also make use of local goods/materials and labor.
Ms. Irene Chan focused on the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, especially on policy coordination, infrastructure, and socio-cultural sectors. Specifically, this success resulted in the creation of China led multilateral institutions and the creation of new norms in the economy and development policies globally. Furthermore, the BRI got a lot of attention from different regional countries that had extreme success in the socio-cultural sector. By encouraging the host countries to continue to develop and support their infrastructure programs. Ms. Chan mentioned that, politically, “it is also unclear to what extent has BRI helped in neutralizing the China perceived US-led encirclement.” She added that the BRI will continue to be implemented and that it will be important to have greater cooperation, policy, and lastly Southeast Asia countries will remain important for China and that these countries will be continuously drawn to the BRI in varying degrees. Lastly, she had recommendations on how to improve the relationship of the two countries: improve transparency and cooperation, improve the local knowledge of China’s perspective, and improve the domestic politics that causes instability and affects the image of local leaders to negotiate.
During the open forum, a diverse set of questions were sent to the two speakers which shows the interest of the participants on the topic presented. Questions given covered subject matters such as 1) The benefits of the BRI for Southeast Asian countries and the economic and financial trade-offs, 2) the concrete data on ROI and BRI, 3) possibility of a debt trap, and 4) the preparation of the Philippine Government to safeguard itself from political influences that might arise from the program.
A total of one hundred (100) attended this webinar event. Participants came from a diverse array of sectors including students, the diplomatic corps, government officials, defense and security personnel and non-governmental organizations.