The Philippines needs to remember the lessons of recent history and canvass alternative options for building its rail infrastructure, argues Melchizedek Maquiso.
In the heat of the Philippines presidential campaign, then-candidate Rodrigo Duterte said that he was willing to set aside the country’s differences with China by ‘shutting up’ on the South China Sea dispute in exchange for the latter building trains around the country.
Now in the top job as 16th president following electoral victory, as if on cue, Chinese officials have assured Duterte that a segment of his railroad wish is doable in two years’ time. Purportedly impressed with China’s railway projects in Africa, Duterte plans to send his transportation secretary to China to discuss the possibility of these projects coming to fruition in the Philippines.
Trains are an integral and much-needed addition to the Philippines’ infrastructure in order to support a burgeoning economy and improve public mobility. Seeking help from a major player in the railway industry appears to be a logically sound move.
However, the policy of ‘shutting up’, which translates to sweeping the issue of the South China Sea under the rug, without establishing firm agreements between the two states, will present more problems for Duterte in the long run. Adding the issue of China’s trains into the picture stifles whatever wriggle room the Philippines has left over this contentious issue.
During Benigno Aquino’s administration, Duterte’s predecessor, the Philippines had become wary of Chinese involvement in its infrastructure projects. Concerns for national security prompted the expulsion of Chinese workers involved in the operation of the country’s power grid. The then Philippines government did not mince words in admitting that this decision came amidst the simmering disputes in the South China Sea.
This incident should serve as a precautionary one for Duterte, reminding him that infrastructure falls under the sphere of national security. While details of Chinese involvement in this proposed railway remain to be seen, Duterte might consider looking into the lessons learned from the power grid incident before making major infrastructure decisions involving China.
Perhaps the combination of naivety, a socialist leaning and the third world status of the Philippines has attracted Duterte to the idea of emulating China’s Africa projects in the Philippines. China’s relationship with the African continent through its “rhetoric of development partnership” has endeared it on the ground there. Translated into incentives related to trade, investment, aid, technical assistance, low-interest loans, and intense diplomatic exchanges with the continent’s leaders, China was able to leverage this largesse for its own benefit. Africa as a whole has since been integral to its energy and resource security.
Duterte, however, must realise that China’s involvement in Africa and the Philippines is an ‘apples and oranges’ metaphor. China’s ambitions in any African state as a whole do not go as far as encroaching on any of that state’s sovereignty. This pronounced difference of geopolitical circumstances suggests that a ‘one size fits all approach’ does not work.
While there may be some altruistic elements in China’s attitude towards its African state counterparts, resonating from deeply-shared historical underpinnings composed of anti-exploitation third world rhetoric, the fact of the matter is that China’s realpolitik ultimately supersedes any inherent romanticism. Duterte needs to understand this prior to embracing China’s ‘train diplomacy.’ He needs to make informed choices and consider other alternatives.
Duterte can look to Japan for alternative ways to realise his railway ambition. Japan has been in the business for some time now and Duterte can take advantage of that country’s train diplomacy without worrying about imminent political quid pro quo arrangements, especially in relation to the South China Sea. China is a relatively a new player in the railway market compared to Japan and this serves the latter well. Shang-Su Wu’s analysis of Japan’s train industry highlights its “excellent safety record, high reliability, and original technology which makes it a competitive option against cheaper Chinese counterparts.”
Beyond the reputation of Japan’s train technology, Duterte should weigh up Japan’s relationship with the Philippines and how this can be leveraged for his project. Japan’s studies on how to decongest the capital of Manila have already suggested the need for railways, which resonates with Duterte’s desire to have one connecting the capital with cities in the north. Japan also has been involved in the peace process in Mindanao, where Duterte hails from, and where he also wants a railway to be built. Having no territorial ambitions in the South China Sea but supporting the Philippines nonetheless both diplomatically and militarily, Duterte can be assured that a quid pro quo deal with Japan is a much safer option than with China.
While it is quite surprising that Japan did not even show any interest (at least publicly) to be involved in Duterte’s railway plans, it should not let such an opportunity pass slowly through the station without jumping on board.