The Binondo-Intramuros Bridge at sunset in Manila, in December 2021. Photo: Wikipedia

The inauguration of a second “friendship” bridge donated by China on Tuesday highlights Beijing’s growing role in Philippine infrastructure development. It shows how both sides pursued cooperation in practical areas despite their unresolved territorial and maritime row and dogged concerns about Chinese investments.

The event came three days ahead of virtual talks between Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on Friday. With elections just a month away, the project’s completion also constitutes China’s pitch for continued cordial ties with the next Philippine leadership.

The new 680-meter four-lane Binondo-Intramuros Bridge links the Spanish-era quarter of Intramuros and the world’s oldest Chinatown, Binondo, two historic commercial districts in the country’s capital city, Manila.

The 3.39 billion peso (US$65.8 million) project employed more than 200 Filipino workers for its construction and is expected to handle 30,000 vehicles per day.

It is the second bridge spanning the critical Pasig River waterway that China gave to the Southeast Asian country. The first one was the Estrella-Pantaleon Bridge connecting Makati and Mandaluyong, which opened to traffic last July. 

No other donor or partner in Philippine infrastructure development has received more scrutiny than China. Criticisms in essence boil down to two: that Chinese investment pledges failed or were slow to materialize, and that such promised largesse is tied to concessions on the two countries maritime disputes. Much ink was spilled to refer to these two bold assertions, but closer examination reveals their deficiencies. 

Delays are common

Hardly any big-ticket Philippine infrastructure project gets completed in six years, the timeframe for any presidential term, and no president since the 1987 constitution took effect can serve another term. Construction of the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) began in 2005 and was completed in 2008 under former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s administration, but that is a rare exception. 

All of the country’s existing urban rail transits were multi-year projects spanning at least two administrations. For instance, construction of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) 2, which weaves through several Metro Manila cities and was partly funded by Japan, began during Fidel Ramos’ government (1996) and finished during Arroyo’s term (2004). Its extension outside Metro Manila (Antipolo) was completed under Duterte’s watch.

Work on the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) 3, which runs through EDSA, Metro Manila’s main road artery, commenced during Ramos’ time (1996) and was finished during Joseph Estrada’s administration (2000). The building of the San Roque Dam, the country’s largest, started during the Estrada government (1998) and was delivered during Arroyo’s leadership (2003). These timelines do not even reflect project initiation and planning.

Therefore, the critique of other China-backed projects not being done before Duterte steps down is misplaced. It sets an unprecedented high bar that even traditional lenders like Japan struggle to meet.

The limited six-year horizon constrains any administration’s capacity to turn over large-scale flagship public works. It also exposes funders and contractors to political risks during leadership transitions, with some projects getting delayed, adjusted, or canceled.

Such criticism also fails to consider institutional shortcomings such as delays by key bureaucracies and difficulties in procuring necessary permits and rights-of-way, which are true for all projects regardless of the funder. 

The Duterte administration ushered in a golden age for Philippine infrastructure, raising spending to 5% of the country’s gross domestic product, more than any of the past four administrations. However, even the most enthusiastic leadership and an accommodating underwriter still have to contend with administrative bottlenecks.

Compared with seasoned partners like Japan, China is also a newcomer in the Philippine infrastructure space, and this lays out a steep learning curve for Chinese funding institutions and construction companies.

Reservations about Chinese investments also mean that Beijing-supported projects will be put to greater rigor – thus taking more time – even if their terms and conditions are in line with prevailing standards.  

Maritime disputes

The second criticism is the supposed linkage between Chinese-funded projects and the West Philippine Sea. The suggestion is that in return for Chinese grants and loans, Manila will give Beijing a free pass in the disputed sea.

But the motives behind China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the overarching framework for its construction projects abroad, and its behavior in the broader South China Sea are separate and distinct.

The BRI is driven by commercial, economic, and strategic reasons, whereas China’s actions in the maritime hotspot are mainly driven by security and geopolitical considerations. Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam do not shun Chinese infrastructure capital for fear that doing so might compromise their respective positions in contested waters. Why would the Philippines be any different? 

Beyond occasional rhetoric and optics, actions on the ground by the Duterte government also do not follow the insinuation’s logic.

Under his watch, the country embarked on a golden age of defense spending, modernizing its coast guard, navy and air force. He also bolstered the facilities in the country’s administered features in the semi-enclosed sea, presiding over the most substantive infrastructure upgrade since Manila staked its claim in the area in the 1970s.

He had also raised the 2016 arbitration award in numerous local and international venues, restored the Visiting Forces Agreement with the country’s treaty ally, the United States, and welcomed the largest joint allied military exercises in years. Hence the case for Manila diminishing its position in the disputed sea because of Chinese infrastructure finance flows stands on shaky ground. 

The entry of China diversifies the Philippines’ infrastructure partners, which already include Japan, South Korea, the Asian Development Bank, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, among others. The Binondo-Intramuros Bridge is just one of several China-funded projects in the country. Its completion attests to the dawn of pragmatism on Manila’s end.

The timing of the inauguration unmistakably sends overtures to candidates who will form the next Philippine administration. Whether they follow Duterte’s gambit remains to be seen. 

Lucio B Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He writes on Asian security and connectivity issues.