Chinese windfall?


“Yes, we have signed up to this and that agreement but they hardly materialized. They hardly materialized!”

Immediately, one can hear the unmistakable exasperation in the voice of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. as he made his remarks late last week in New York City over the many heavily publicized commitments made by the Chinese government to the Philippines.

Locsin’s frustration is a notable admission of an important issue.

As far as I can tell, Locsin is the first senior Duterte official openly expressing dismay over China’s failure to live up to the bargain over this government’s policy of accommodation.

Unfortunately, I can’t categorically say if this is now the prevailing sentiment inside Malacañang or if it is just an articulation of a powerful faction.

More so, since presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo says the Chinese can’t be blamed if their commitments aren’t happening, citing as reason the Chinese have issues with the Philippine government’s stringent requirements and processes for foreign investments.

But whatever is the true official sentiment over China’s commitments, government’s growing frustration over unmet commitments cannot be ignored, particularly in face of the fact that since Mr. Duterte’s rise to power government has been dizzy with anticipation over large-scale Chinese investments.

Growing frustration, nonetheless, puts a spotlight on Chinese investments. One analyst says, “China’s investments are paltry. During Duterte’s first year in office, Japanese investments ($490 million) dwarfed China’s ($27 million) by a factor of nearly 20:1. Americans invested $160 million. Japan remained, by far, the leading foreign player in infrastructure.”

Locsin himself acknowledges the situation when he admits Chinese commitments are “nothing” compared to the assistance received by the country from the Japanese government.

“If you were to compare it (China’s commitments) to the Japanese investments and official assistance, nothing,” Locsin says.

Chinese investments so far, analysts are saying, have been largely been confined to casinos, tourism, real estate and mineral resources. Big-ticket state-backed projects have yet to materialize.

Where then are all Chinese monies in the wake of the warmer ties with China? Perhaps the answer lies not so much in the politics of warmer ties but rather with knowing about the present actual situation of China herself.

The politics of warmer ties, of course, cannot be set aside. China’s growing “soft power” clout is evident with its ambitious and vast “new Silk Road” strategy of building railways, roads and ports all across the world, using billions of dollars of Chinese loans.

China’s power projection is also drawing international concern. Just last week, Japan and the European Union signed infrastructure agreements, part of Europe’s “Asia connectivity” strategy, in Europe and Asia precisely to counter the “Belt and Road” initiative.

While the security implications of China’s strategy calls for immediate concern, we must also strongly emphasize that all those networks of ports, railroads and highways have important commercial impacts.

What this essentially means is that all those Chinese investments are also vitally linked to what China gains in trade — gains that in turn also has large implications on China’s political and financial stability.

Expanding clout, therefore, is also a matter of resolving China’s internal problems. Of those many domestic problems, prominent Chinese analyst Victor Shih says China has difficulties with “contradictions between the need to create credit, to drive growth, and the need to secure a stable currency, to avoid financial crisis (which) has intensified in recent years.”

Going into the nitty-gritty of these complex economic questions over China’s “state capitalist” nature is, of course, a matter for the experts.

But as far as what I can make of the issue, it seems one important aspect is that China’s internal problems led to a tight grip on overseas investments by its leaders — a grip, which can probably explain why there are measly, trickles of Chinese investments in the country.

As to why China’s leaders need to keep the monies tightly inside China’s own borders rather than have its new wealthy elites bring all the money out, known technically as capital controls, is because China’s new wealthy elite are finding they can grow even richer by investing overseas than investing inside their own country.

China’s new rich have pressed, directly and indirectly, its government to relax the system of capital controls even if the same controls play a central part in China’s growth strategy and largely protect the value of China’s currency, the renminbi.

China’s government, therefore, “understands that capital controls constitute its ultimate line of defense in pursuing an independent economic strategy,” says Shih.

In view of this, China’s government has implemented a series of radically escalating capital-control measures. “These have included limits on corporations swapping renminbi into US dollars without underlying trade invoices, checks on the veracity of trade invoices to prevent over- and under-invoicing, higher hurdles for individuals to convert renminbi into dollars, and a crackdown on underground banks and popular offshore locations for currency exchange. These draconian steps have significantly restricted the exit of renminbi in the last few years,” Shih added.

China’s crackdown on “underground banks and popular offshore locations for currency exchange” needs to be noted here as it has a lot to do with Chinese objections over the exploding operations of the controversial Philippine offshore gaming operators (Pogo), the offshore casinos.

On the surface, China is uncomfortable with the social costs of Pogo on its people. But the larger concern is probably more about capital flight. Thus, the increasing vocal suspicions of Chinese officials that offshore casinos are outlets of money laundering schemes.

From all these, perhaps now we can get a handle on why, at the present moment, nothing much is felt of the anticipated windfall from Chinese investments in the country — inklings that this government should take keen notice of if it needs to take a review of its China appeasement policy.