By Camille Elemia
Free classrooms, cash donations and all expenses-paid trips to China.
Against the backdrop of Sino-U.S. tensions, Beijing is investing in Philippine provinces facing Taiwan, according to an interview with a provincial governor and information from China’s envoy to Manila.
In recent years, China has intensified its efforts to woo officials in the provinces of Cagayan, at the northern tip of Luzon island, and Batanes, a chain of Philippine islands 125 miles (201 km) from Taiwan. Both provinces, which are relatively close to the strategic Luzon Strait and Bashin Channel, have also been a focus lately of American military activity.
Chinese officials have visited Cagayan at least four times this year, according to official records. That includes a Nov. 29 to Dec. 1 visit to the province by Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian, who was welcomed by Cagayan Gov. Manuel Mamba.
“Why would we fight China? China has been very good to Cagayan,” Mamba told BenarNews in a phone interview on Tuesday. He described China as Cagayan’s “big brother,” citing their pre-colonial trade relations.
Still, Cagayan is home to Naval Base Camilo Osias and Cagayan North International Airport, two sites that are covered under a newly expanded military agreement between the Philippines and the United States.
The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed by the Marcos and Biden administrations earlier this year, gives U.S. troops access to more Philippine military bases on a rotating basis and allows Washington to build facilities as well as pre-deploy military weapons and equipment at nine bases.
The Philippines and the United States are bound by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which calls on both to assist each other in times of aggression or war. American troops are regularly in the Philippines for war games that have taken renewed urgency, analysts have said, because of perceptions that Beijing may invade Taiwan.
Mamba had earlier publicly stated his opposition to EDCA sites located in Cagayan province.
Ambassador Huang visited the town of Santa Ana where Naval Base Camilo Osias is located, said Mamba, who is seeking financing from Chinese investors for a new international airport and seaport to link his province to East Asian countries.
“The Chinese embassy is helping me look for Chinese investors,” Mamba said. “Their government is giving incentives to businesses that will invest in us.”
Mamba said the embassy had also promised to help find buyers for the dredged materials from the Aparri river, the spot for a planned seaport.
In Cagayan, China has donated money and food packs to the province during typhoons.
The embassy in Manila reported donating at least U.S. $54,000 for the construction of kindergarten classrooms in the municipality of Tuao, Mamba’s hometown.
“Since 2016, China has been very generous to us, not like America which did not give us anything,” Mamba said. “Sometimes China would course it through the different Chinese chambers of commerce.”
Negotiations are ongoing for a sister city pact between Tuguegarao city in Cagayan and Huzhou city in China’s Zhejiang province, which Mamba visited with other local officials in May.
He said about 20 business people from Zhejiang frequently visit Cagayan, adding that on Dec. 17, local officials and business people were expected to travel to China on a sponsored trip.
While in China, Mamba said he had a “deep and long discussion” with Sun Weidong, Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs, on the two countries’ ties.
Mamba said Sun asked him to relay three points to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr: Taiwan is China’s internal problem; the South China Sea dispute should be discussed only by Manila and Beijing; and the two countries are good neighbors and should not allow foreign forces to interfere.
The Cagayan governor told BenarNews that he sent a letter to the president after his trip, but Marcos’ office had yet to respond.
In the Batanes islands, which make up the northernmost province in the Philippines, China recently donated laptops, desktops and printers as requested by Gov. Marilou Cayco.
Previously, according to Cayco, the Chinese Embassy was very quick in delivering funding.
“They just ask me to write what we need and they will give it to us,” Cayco told reporters in December 2022.
Just like in Cagayan, China began wooing Batanes in 2016 – the year that an international court ruled in favor of Manila and invalidated Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.
In a social media post by the Chinese Embassy in Manila, it said that China had been generous to Batanes since Cayco’s term started.
The embassy donated $180,000 for the victims of earthquakes. It also donated computer equipment and funds to create a “friendship farm” in Kavaywan on the island of Itbayat, the northernmost inhabited island in the Philippines.
“We have had a long-term cooperation with the Province of Batanes and helped to establish the Kavaywan Ivatan-Chinese Friendship Tourism Farm,” Ambassador Huang said in a Facebook post on Dec. 9. “Glad to turn over sets of laptops, desktops and printers to Gov. Cayco. May our humble contribution help the people of Batanes.”
The farm, which is part of a vast vegetable production site according to local officials, is a vital component of the food sufficiency program for the province, which has long felt isolated from the national government.
Cayco had said the province’s officials decided to focus on beefing up the remote islands’ food supplies to prepare for a possible conflict between Taiwan and China. The remote province is anticipating hosting thousands of Filipino repatriates should there be an invasion.
In this year’s Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises, the annual joint military drills between the U.S. and the Philippines, troops simulated the defense of Batanes from a hypothetical aggressor through air assault.
In September, U.S. Ambassador MaryKay Carlson told reporters that the governor had pitched several development projects for U.S. support. These included constructing a breakwater to allow cargo ships to dock when waters are rough and providing solar lights and streetlights.