WINNIE the Pooh was missing from my social media feeds last week. This suggests that my social network saw no need to protest Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first official visit to Manila or found other ways to express what they thought of it.
Perhaps, like me, they were stuck in traffic and wished that the day we would get better public transportation and infrastructure would come sooner. Reading news reports about the agreements signed during that two-day visit, I noticed that none of the deals involved a project in Cebu.
A quick visit to the socioeconomic planning department’s website revealed that both the Cebu-Bohol and Negros-Cebu bridge projects had been submitted earlier to the Chinese Government, in the hopes that it would provide assistance for these projects’ feasibility studies. Early days. The 65-kilometer Subic-Clark rail was further along in the project development and implementation process, in that its proponents were already waiting for China’s shortlist of contractors. What the site didn’t reveal was how much of the estimated P57 billion needed for the project would come from a loan from China.
This lack of detailed information is worrisome. There are some updates in the Philippine Infrastructure Transparency Portal (www.build.gov.ph), which is a good attempt to help the public keep track of the Duterte administration’s infrastructure program. But while seeking feedback by asking people “How do you feel about this project?” is cute, it doesn’t provide the accountability and transparency that the public should have about such important projects.
The site does tell you each project’s budget and whether it will depend on a public-private partnership (PPP) or official development assistance (ODA) but, for now, leaves out important details. What are the rules in case we fail to pay back these loans? How will disputes be settled and where? Will the interest rates be concessional or commercial? “Less concessional and more commercially oriented projects make up the bulk of China’s global finance portfolio,” the AidData site (www.aiddata.org) has found out. Another of its findings? “Irrespective of the funding source, less concessional and more commercially-oriented types of official finance do not boost economic growth.”
Two years ago, President Rodrigo Duterte secured US$9 billion worth of ODA pledges from China for 40 infrastructure projects. To date, only three projects have broken ground, Julie McCarthy wrote in a US National Public Radio post last week. Combined, the two bridges in Manila and the Chico River irrigation project in Cagayan and Kalinga are worth $124 million, which is less than two percent of the amount pledged.
These pledges were for government-to-government projects, meaning a competitive public bidding would not be required. How will these projects then be monitored and evaluated, and how can concerned citizens participate? More clarity from our government would help, since we don’t have as much experience in using aid from China as we do with aid from other countries. As of December 2016, China’s share of the Philippines’ US$16-billion ODA portfolio amounted to less than one percent. Japan’s share, at US$5.62 billion, was 36 percent.
Last week, I didn’t worry that online protesters had “weaponized” Winnie the Pooh or asked whether backing off from the West Philippine Sea was an unspoken condition for leaning on China to build more of the infrastructure we need. That question needs to be asked. What worries me is the lack of information, because it is precisely in that absence that our prejudices and suspicions might fester.