By Dennis Jay Santos, Luis Liwanag and Tia Asmara
Southeast Asian and world leaders gathered in Beijing on Thursday for the three-day One Belt, One Road (OBOR) forum, aiming to reap economic deals amid China’s unprecedented moves to assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad were among the leaders or diplomats from three dozen countries who have landed in the Chinese capital to participate in the second summit focusing on China’s infrastructure-building initiative OBOR, aides told BenarNews.
Indonesian leader Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who attended the forum’s first edition in 2017, had been expected to attend the gathering but decided to stay home to tend to domestic issues as he awaits official election results following last week’s presidential election, aides said.
Duterte was expected to sign bilateral agreements, his officials said, but a dispute over Beijing’s moves in the South China Sea threaten to hijack the agenda for his trip.
The Philippine leader held talks Thursday with his counterpart Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People, during which the Chinese leader reaffirmed his commitment to strengthen political and economic relations with Manila, officials said.
“We’re happy that China and Philippine relations are getting better and better. I treat Mr. President as a good friend, a genuine friend and trustful partner,” said Xi, referring to Duterte, according to transcripts made available to the Filipino media.
In other action Thursday, Southeast Asian leaders and envoys witnessed the signing of trade deals with China, including Mahathir who was with his counterpart Li Keqiang when Malaysia inked a memorandum that would increase China’s palm oil imports from Kuala Lumpur.
China is one of Malaysia’s largest buyers of palm oil, after the European Union and India. Kuala Lumpur exported 3 million tons of palm oil valued at 8.4 billion ringgit (U.S. $2 billion) to China last year. Thursday’s deal would increase exports by 1.9 million tons during a five-year period starting this year, officials said.
Duterte’s meeting with Xi occurred barely three weeks after the Philippine leader warned China to stay away from Philippine-occupied territories in the South China Sea.
Beijing claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.
China said on Thursday that it had complained to France after a French warship entered Chinese territorial waters while passing through the Taiwan Strait on April 7. The complaint appear to illustrate how China is willing to permit assertions of its territorial claims to affect ties with nations from outside the region, according to the Associated Press.
Duterte’s visit came as his administration filed a diplomatic protest against China for alleged swarming of Chinese militia ships near Pag-asa, an island in the contested sea region occupied by Philippine forces.
Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday that Manila has already asked China to exercise self-restraint and keep its military forces at an appropriate distance from Pag-asa.
“The Chinese position is opposite, they claim all of the Spratlys. So we have basic differences but we have agreed that we should deal with these differences through peaceful and diplomatic means,” he said.
Former Philippine leader Benigno Aquino III had taken Beijing to the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea. The court ruled in favor of the Philippines in 2016 after Duterte succeeded him as president.
Indonesia says OBOR projects must be profit-oriented
Indonesia’s coordinating ministry for maritime affairs said last month it had proposed 28 development projects with estimated value of $91 billion under the OBOR infrastructure initiative.
On Thursday, Jokowi’s government said any infrastructure project under OBOR should be profitable and not add to government debt.
Jokowi has made improving the country’s dilapidated infrastructure a priority during his first term, but opposition members ahead of last week’s election had accused him of having a penchant for debt and being too cozy with China.
“Projects must be profit-oriented. If they’re not profitable, they will not be implemented,” Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir told reporters.
OBOR, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature policy, is an estimated U.S. $1 trillion-plus initiative that stretches across 70 countries. It aims to weave a network of railways, ports and bridges, linking China with Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia.
The initiative has drawn criticism abroad, amid accusations that China is engaging in a “debt-trap diplomacy” by extending excessive credit with the alleged intention of extracting economic or political concessions from the debtor country.
Economists contend that the initiative forces emerging economies to take on unsustainable levels of debt to fund Beijing-backed projects. They highlight concerns by pointing out that a Chinese state-owned company took over the majority stake in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port after Colombo struggled to repay its loans from China.
Meanwhile, a China-backed hydropower project in Indonesia already is under the spotlight amid concerns that it could threaten the world’s rarest orangutan species.
The U.S. $1.6 billion hydropower plant in the Batang Toru rainforest on Sumatra Island will divide the habitat of about 800 Tapanuli orangutan and increase the risk of their extinction, environmental groups and scientists have said.
Another project, a railway linking the city of Bandung in West Java and the capital Jakarta, which has seen projected costs rise to U.S. $5.9 billion (85.6 trillion rupiah), is being constructed by a consortium led by China Railway International.
Jokowi launched the project in early 2016 to much fanfare, but construction was delayed for about two years.
Previously approved projects involving China include a hydroelectric project in North Kalimantan – located in the Indonesian section of Borneo – estimated to cost U.S. $25 billion (363 trillion rupiah) and a series of coal-fired power plants estimated to cost U.S. $12 billion (174 trillion rupiah).
Sino-Indonesian trade grew almost tenfold from 2003 to 2010 alone, when the volume reached U.S. $36.1 billion (524 trillion rupiah), according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a Canada-based independent think-tank.
Thailand signs memorandum with Laos and China
On Thursday, Thailand’s minister of transportation, Arkhom Termpittayapaisith, signed a three-party memorandum of cooperation with Laos and China to build a railway bridge over the Mekong River to link Thailand’s high-speed train network with its rail segment in Laos.
Arkhom inked the deal at Beijing’s National Convention Center with Hu Zucai, vice chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, and Bounchanh Sinthavong, Laos’ transport minister, according to a Thai ministry press statement issued in Bangkok.
Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.