The Brunei Darussalam Maritime Museum exhibits Chinese blue and white porcelain, found in a 500-year-old shipwreck, in Bandar Seri Begawan on November 16 (XINHUA)
Davao del Norte Province, known as the "banana capital" of the Philippines, is dotted with thousands of fruit farms and produces more than one third of the country's bananas. The banana industry in this province is booming, with a rising demand coming mainly from the Chinese market. China is now the second largest recipient of Philippine bananas. The exports to China reached $288 million, or 25.6 percent of the Philippines' total banana exports last year, with a year-on-year increase of 49.5 percent.
Other tropical fruits are also entering the Chinese market due to warming bilateral relations. Figures from the Chinese Government show that China imported more than 2 million tons of tropical fruits from the Philippines over the past two years. During the first China International Import Expo in Shanghai, more than 40 exhibitors from the Philippines were present. The sales value totaled $130 million and was double the expectations of the Philippine Department of Trade and Industry.
President Xi Jinping paid his first state visit to the Philippines on November 20-21. His three-country Asia-Pacific tour also included Papua New Guinea (PNG), where he attended the 26th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting, and Brunei—the first visit by a Chinese head of state in 13 years to the Southeast Asian country.
According to Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the trip helped deepen partnerships, boost Belt and Road cooperation, enhance confidence in multilateralism and broaden the consensus on common development.
Workers at a banana plantation in Davao del Norte Province, the Philippines, on October 30 (XINHUA)
A highlight of Xi's visit to the Philippines was the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative, along with the MoU on Cooperation on Oil and Gas Development. The two leaders also agreed to discuss maritime issues including oil and gas exploration, the sustainable use of minerals as well as energy and other marine resources.
Luo Yongkun, an associate researcher on South China Sea studies with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said that the MoU on Cooperation on Oil and Gas Development was signed in line with the interests of the two sides and is mutually beneficial. It is a result of bilateral consultations between the two sides on the South China Sea which have been taking place since 2016.
China-Philippines relations hit a rough patch when the former Philippine Government unilaterally initiated "arbitration" on the South China Sea issue in 2013. The signing of the MoUs showed that bilateral relations have not only been brought back on track but have also gained momentum.
China's growing role on the world stage is likely to have been one of the decisive factors for the turnaround, according to Xu Liping, a researcher with the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative has brought benefits to neighboring countries, which can't be ignored by the Philippines. As development is now a priority it is seeking to cooperate with China, its regional neighbor. It also hopes to see tangible benefits in the near future.
Wang said that China shares extensive interests with the Philippines and Brunei in the South China Sea, adding that the two countries agreed to resolve differences with China through friendly consultations, further maritime cooperation and advance talks on a code of conduct in the South China Sea.
PNG is China's largest trading partner among the Pacific island nations, while China is PNG's third largest overall. PNG has attracted the most Chinese investment in the region, with an estimated $3.04 billion in direct investment as of October. About 40 Chinese companies are now operating in the country.
China Railway Construction Corp. entered the PNG market in 2008. Over the past decade, it has initiated 22 construction projects in the country with a total building area of nearly 150,000 square meters and a contract value of $220 million. This has resulted in 6,000 jobs for the country.
The China-assisted Independence Boulevard was completed before the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting. The boulevard links the national parliament house and Port Moresby's trunk roads, providing more convenient and efficient transportation for locals.
PNG is the first country in the Pacific island region to sign an MoU on Belt and Road cooperation with China. The projects under the initiative will include badly needed infrastructure such as ports, roads and bridges.
While in PNG, Xi met with the leaders of the eight Pacific island countries that have diplomatic ties with China. They agreed to elevate their relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership featuring mutual respect and common development, providing strong political guidance to the development of China's ties with the island countries, Wang said.
The outcome of Xi's visit, including about 60 cooperation agreements signed between China and the island countries, has once again proved that the foundation of bilateral cooperation is expanding, Wang added.
China is currently Brunei's largest source of imports with more Chinese enterprises investing in Brunei. Construction of the largest joint venture, the Hengyi petrochemical project, is moving forward smoothly, said Yang Jian, Chinese Ambassador to Brunei, adding that after operation begins in 2019, it will bring remarkable economic and social benefits and boost local employment.
The first phase of the project cost $3.45 billion and has a crude oil processing capacity of 8 million tons per year. A larger second phase will be launched soon, with an investment of nearly $12 billion and an added crude oil processing capacity of 15 million tons. This will significantly improve the crude oil processing scale in Brunei.
Meanwhile, the development of the Brunei-Guangxi Economic Corridor is making tangible progress, and bilateral cooperation is gaining traction in fields such as harbor operation, sea farming and spice processing and trade.
Last year, the trade volume between China and the Philippines topped $51 billion, and the newly added investment from China totaled $53.84 million, a year-on-year increase of 67 percent.
China attaches great importance to synergizing the Belt and Road Initiative with the Philippines' Ambisyon Natin 2040 development strategy, as well as the country's multi-billion-dollar "Build, Build, Build" program, Zhao Jianhua, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines said, adding that China's firm support for the Philippines' construction and growth demonstrates that China is a reliable partner for the Southeast Asian country.
Blooming relations have also brought more Chinese tourists to the Philippines. China has now become the second biggest source of tourism to the nation, Zhao said, adding that more than 1.5 million Chinese are expected to visit the country this year, generating an estimated $610 million.
China also supports the Philippine Government's efforts in fighting illicit drugs and drug-related crimes. They expressed a willingness to strengthen cooperation in areas including combating the smuggling of illegal drugs and their precursor chemicals, intelligence sharing, joint investigation and operation as well as drug rehabilitation.
Wang said the fruitful results of Xi's visits to the Philippines and Brunei showed once again that friendship and cooperation dominate the relations between China and its neighbors.
Copyedited by Craig Crowther
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