MANILA (UPDATE) — China's envoy in the Philippines on Friday said the relationship between Beijing and Manila “deepened” under President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, noting that disputes in the South China Sea have been supposedly “properly handled.”
In a virtual forum, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian said the two countries have been committed to peace and friendship since Duterte came to power in 2016.
“In the past five years, with the commitment to peace and friendship, our two countries have continuously deepened pragmatic cooperation, properly handled maritime disputes, and brought tangible benefits to our peoples,” said Huang.
The Chinese official’s statement came as the Philippines filed a fresh diplomatic protest over his country’s illegal and lingering presence in the West Philippine Sea, the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the resource-rich South China Sea.
Beijing lays expansive claims over the waters despite a July 2016 UN tribunal invalidating it. Duterte has downplayed the incursions, as he pursued Chinese investments, infrastructure funding and COVID-19 vaccine supply.
But Huang touted economic ties between the two sides, saying China has been the Philippines’ biggest trading partner since 2016, and the second-largest foreign investor in 2020.
He cited the projects under the Belt and Road Initiative and Duterte's flagship domestic infrastructure program "Build, Build, Build."
Some bilateral government-to-government projects were also carried out under the current administration, which included 12 programs worth $100 million and 7 projects with a total value of around $700 million, said the envoy.
Among these are the China-backed "Two Bridges Project" in Manila, the Philippine-Sino Center for Agricultural Technology-Technical Cooperation Program, which is on its 3rd phase, and the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project — all of which are expected to be completed this year.
"A list of pipeline projects worth billions of US dollars are currently under the Philippine internal review and bidding process," Huang added.
Because of these, he said he hopes that Filipinos would know who their true ally is.
“Over the past year, we have fought against the pandemic together and pushed forward the practical cooperation against headwinds. Our partnership in the new era has been endowed with a stronger foundation, a richer content and a finer quality,” he said, noting the two countries’ cooperation to ramp up infrastructure projects and strengthen the business and education sector.
“I believe all of these would help the Filipinos know who their real friends and reliable partners are,” according to the Chinese official.
Former ombudsman and high court magistrate Conchita Carpio-Morales on Friday, however, blasted Duterte for supposedly making the country's sovereignty as "collateral" of the China-backed loans for infrastructure projects.
In a separate forum, Morales said the projects with Beijing should be done legally and with transparency to protect the Philippines'
“The ultimate collateral is our sovereignty as a people and as a nation. While it is early to ascertain and provide concrete accounts of [how the] BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) has been for China’s expansion of power, the early signs are glaring and worrying," she warned.
Earlier this week, Duterte said his 2016 campaign promise in a bid to challenge Chinese aggression in the disputed area was a "pure joke" and that those who believed it were "stupid."
He had also likened the country's 2016 arbitral award to a piece of "paper" that belonged to the "wastebasket," drawing criticism from the public and international law experts.
Before this, the chief executive said the Philippines holds a "debt of gratitude" for Chinese aid, but that its waters "cannot be bargained [for]."
As of May 9, 287 Chinese vessels were still in Philippine waters, of which "bigger groupings" were spotted in Chinese-built artificial islands, while some were observed near islands occupied by Manila, according to a government task force.
— Reports from Michael Delizo and Job Manahan, ABS-CBN News