CHINA’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been perceived as a game changer for the developing world, and its impact is nothing short of inspiring. This ambitious infrastructure and economic development project, initiated and launched in 2013, encompasses over 140 countries and is poised to reshape the global economic landscape.
Some of the reasons why the BRI is a source of inspiration and a game changer for the developing world include infrastructure development, poverty reduction, trade facilitation, technology transfer and innovation, cultural exchange, green development, financial inclusion, global cooperation and multilateralism.
The BRI is not only a monumental undertaking and colossal infrastructure and economic development project that aims to connect Asia, Europe and Africa through a network of roads, railways, ports and other infrastructure but is also a visionary undertaking that transcends borders, cultures and ideologies. It is, without a doubt, one of the most ambitious and transformative initiatives of our time. Conceived by China but embraced by nations across Asia, Africa, Europe and even beyond, it embodies the spirit of cooperation, connectivity and shared prosperity. It has evolved into a collaborative effort that spans continents, aiming to reshape the world’s economic and geopolitical landscape.
As one of the early participants of this initiative, the Philippines has received Chinese investments and loans for various projects. However, based on some recent developments, it seems that there’s a reversal in the Philippines’ being part and parcel of the BRI. According to reports, Transport Secretary Jaime Bautista announced a few weeks ago the scrapping of $4.9 billion worth of supposed Chinese-funded infrastructure projects. The announcement is equivalent to the complete termination of major infrastructure projects under China’s BRI in favor of competitors from the West, namely the United States and the European Union, alongside Japan and South Korea. The Philippines seems confident it can secure the necessary funding for its on-the-pipeline infrastructure projects from sources such as the US-dominated World Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency, or Asian Development Bank, where the US and Japan hold the most shares.
Thus far, this shows that the bilateral relations between the two countries, the Philippines and China, are once more at their lowest point. This also indicates a dramatic reversal of the warm, cordial and pragmatic working relationship between the Philippines and China under the previous Rodrigo Duterte administration. Among the visible factors explaining why such a situation was precipitated is the heightened tensions between the Philippines and China over the dispute in the South China Sea (SCS). In this regard, it begs to ask the question, is it prudent and wise for the Philippines to exit from the BRI? What are the consequences of such a decision for the Philippines?
Leaving China’s BRI could have several negative consequences for the Philippines, particularly its economy. One of the imminent adverse impacts is obviously the loss of infrastructure investments from China. In the long run, this could negatively impact the long-term prospects of the country’s infrastructure development, which could adversely affect the country’s economic growth. One of the primary benefits of being part of the BRI is access to Chinese investments for both soft and hard infrastructure projects like transportation networks, energy systems and digital infrastructures. In many ways, these infrastructure projects funded through the BRI often create jobs directly and indirectly. A withdrawal from the initiative could result in a slowdown in job creation, which could have social and economic consequences.
On another note, as we all know, the BRI aims to enhance connectivity between countries, which can facilitate trade. Leaving the initiative may lead to reduced trade opportunities with other BRI member countries, potentially increasing logistics costs and making it more challenging for Filipino businesses to access international markets. Likewise, if the Philippines exits the BRI, it must seek alternative funding sources for its infrastructure and development projects. Identifying and securing these sources may be challenging, will take time, and could be less favorable in terms and conditions than BRI funding.
Furthermore, leaving the BRI may further strain diplomatic relations with China, potentially affecting broader bilateral cooperation and negotiations, including those related to the SCS dispute. Maintaining diplomatic channels and open communication is essential for resolving disputes peacefully and diplomatically.
The decision by the Philippines to exit China’s BRI should not be taken lightly. While there may be reasons for the Philippines to consider leaving the BRI, including the heightened political and geopolitical tensions with China over the SCS dispute, it is essential to carefully assess the economic consequences, including the potential loss of infrastructure investments, impacts on economic growth, trade and connectivity, job creation, diplomatic relations and the need to find alternative funding sources. Balancing these factors is crucial for the Marcos administration in making an informed decision that aligns with the country’s long-term economic and strategic interests.
On the other hand, the decision to exit the BRI because of the alleged aggressive actions of China in the contested waters of the SCS is a complex decision that requires careful analysis of the potential consequences and can have broader geopolitical implications. One possible backlash is it may potentially further strain relations between the two countries. The Philippines should consider how such a move might affect its relations with China and neighboring regional countries, which could possibly exacerbate the SCS dispute. Thus, the Philippines should weigh the potential diplomatic repercussions of such a decision.
On the contrary, regarding geopolitical considerations, the Philippines’ participation in the BRI can strengthen its ties with China. Maintaining a positive and pragmatic relationship with China is not only beneficial to the Philippines economically speaking since China thus far is still its largest trading partner and an essential partner in many other fields like agriculture and tourism. Maintaining cordial and pragmatic relations with China in many ways can help the Philippines navigate complex geopolitical issues, such as the territorial and maritime disputes in the SCS.
Hence, in making such a crucial decision, the Philippines should assess its long-term geopolitical goals and consider how its stance on the BRI aligns with its interests in the disputed SCS and the broader regional context. While the territorial dispute is a significant factor, such a decision should prioritize the country’s economic well-being, environmental sustainability and strategic independence. Balancing all these interests will be essential in making an informed decision.
Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy
is a PhD economics candidate at the Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development in China’s Peking University. She is analyst, director and vice president for external affairs of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), a Manila-based think tank.