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BRI Funding Sees China and the Philippines Commit to Building Bridges

Bridge-building initiative helps Beijing and Manila get over the troubled waters of the South China Sea dispute.

Photo: Newly-linked: The China-Philippines Binondo-Intramuros bridge project.
Newly-linked: The China-Philippines Binondo-Intramuros bridge project.
Photo: Newly-linked: The China-Philippines Binondo-Intramuros bridge project.
Newly-linked: The China-Philippines Binondo-Intramuros bridge project.

While recent extreme weather events mean that the Philippines' massive infrastructure development programme may have to be re-designated as 'Re-build, re-build, re-build,' they certainly won't suffice to derail the key projects already commissioned in any significant way. Nor will they undermine the dramatically improved relationship between the country and China, a relationship that, in the past, was more strained than productive. Now, though, against the ever-expanding backdrop of the mighty Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the two countries are committed to building bridges. Quite literally.

As the damage caused by recent super-typhoon Mangkhut underlines, the Philippines is more vulnerable than most when it comes to incidences of extreme weather. As an archipelagic country, made up of more than 7,600 islands, building and maintaining bridges is an essential element in its economic development. The devastation left behind by the storms and typhoons that all too frequently strike the country – particularly in the case of its fragile bridges and viaducts – is made all the worse by the fact that the country still has far fewer such structures than it really needs.

There are, for example, only 19 bridges spanning the 27km-long stretch of the Pasig River that wends its way through Manila, the national capital. By comparison, the 13km of the Seine River in Paris is spanned by 37 such structures during the course of its meanderings through the French capital.

With this infrastructural shortcoming also a feature of many of the Philippines' other major cities, weather damage aside, extreme traffic congestion is now endemic, while bottlenecks caused by the restricted number of crossing points are commonplace. To try to remedy this, during July 2016-June 2018 the government completed retrofitting / strengthening work on 642 bridges, together spanning more than 29km. Some 939 bridges, spanning about 40km in total, were also wholly refurbished, while 204 new bridges (8km in all) were constructed. This, though, is only scratching the surface.

Given the immense costs involved in wholly upgrading the country's connectivity and transport infrastructure, it was inevitable that China would emerge as the only viable source of investment. Fortunately, the country's needs seem to be very much in line with the aims of the BRI, China's ambitious international infrastructure development and trade facilitation programme.

From China's point of view, the Philippines has a clear role to play in the bigger BRI picture. Most obviously, with a population in excess of 104 million, it is a ready market for Chinese exports, with its status as one of the fastest-growing economies in the ASEAN bloc only likely to enhance its allure. Improved connections and, consequently, improved relations would only ease access to this market.

On top of that, there is the country's geographical significance. China has already earmarked the Port of Davao, some 946km to the southeast of Manila, as a key stopping-off point and consolidation hub for the planned expansion of its trade in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. To that end, it is committed to funding the redevelopment of the port as part of its wider investment commitment to the Philippines.

To date, China has pledged to back large-scale Philippine infrastructure projects to the tune of US$7.34 billion. This, though, is only part of the broader $24 billion agreed during the 2016 state visit to Beijing by Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines. Tellingly, since Duterte took office in May 2016, there has been a massive 5,682% increase in Chinese investment in the Philippines.

In more specific terms, earlier this year, China delivered on its pledge to provide PHP4.13 billion (US$78 million) of funding for two bridges on the Pasig River, with work beginning on both in July. The first project is actually a replacement for the 506-metre Estrella-Pantaleon bridge that connects Makati City and Mandaluyong City. The second is the all-new 734-metre Binondo-Intramuros Bridge, which will connect two of Manila's most historic districts.

More recently, in late September, the Chinese government agreed to finance and construct the PHP1.5-billion Davao River Bridge-Bucana, part of the 18km Davao City Coastal Road Project. At the same time, China also signed off on a $13.4 million grant for a feasibility study on plans for the massive Panay-Guimaras-Negros bridge project.

Financing for these projects is mainly being provided via the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA), which only opened its doors in April this year. Despite its relatively recent establishment, the Philippines has already submitted 12 prospective big-ticket infrastructure projects to the agency for consideration. These are believed to include the Luzon-Samar (Matnog-Alen) Bridge; the Dinagat (Leyte)-Surigao Link Bridge; the Camarines Sur-Catanduanes Friendship Bridge; the Bohol-Leyte Link Bridge; the Cebu-Bohol Link Bridge and the Negros-Cebu Link Bridge.

With relations between China and the Philippines at a high point, despite the still-simmering South China Sea territorial disputes, it seems safe to assume that many of these projects will be greenlit. Indeed, it has been widely anticipated that Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, will give his formal assent to the proposals during his state visit to the Philippines later this year.

Marilyn Balcita, Special Correspondent, Manila

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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