Increased trade, investment infrastructure are rationale for policy shift in China: senator

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Increased trade and infrastructure investment underpin President Rodrigo Duterte's shift to warmer relations with the Asian giant, a senator and member of the Philippine delegation to China said Monday.

"Trade can really improve, double or even triple, if China will rekindle its relationship with us," neophyte senator Sherwin Gatchalian told CNN Philippines' "The Source."

This was because of China's "sheer size" and "proximity," he said, citing less than two hours of travel time to the autonomous Chinese territory of Hong Kong and the business hub of Shanghai.

Gatchalian said that these renewed relations with China are on top of the bilateral ties it has with other countries, including the United States.

He characterized the shift in foreign policy as "economic," saying it will manifest through public-private partnerships, official development assistance, and investments.

He also said the Philippines needed outside help to pursue significant investments in infrastructure. "We don't have the cash to do it," Gatchalian said. "So we need foreign investments, or external support in terms of investing in infrastructure."

Gatchalian was part of a huge delegation that accompanied President Duterte a week ago to China.

As a result of this trip, funding deals worth US$24 billion were signed. Of this amount, US$15 billion is in investment projects in telecommunications, transportation, and infrastructure; and US$9 billion in credit facilities, said Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez.

China accounted for around 15.1 percent of total trade in the Philippines this year, according to statistics from the Department of Trade and Industry. It was second only to Japan and followed by the United States.

Gatchalian said the "typical gestation" of a public-private partnership takes four to five years, so they may only reach fruition after an administrative term finishes.

It was important to get investments off the ground early enough so that Filipinos could feel their impact in three years. To do that, "you implement (them) all at the same time," he said.

Duterte started his term of office on July 1, 2016 and ends his presidency on June 30, 2022.

At a dinner with Chinese and Filipino businessmen Thursday in Beijing during his state visit, Duterte declared that the Philippines would "separate" from the United States and "realign" with China and Russia.

Related: Duterte says U.S. has lost, aligns Philippines with China

Upon returning to the Philippines on Saturday, Duterte clarified that "separation"  did not mean a "severance" of ties, and relations with the United States will continue.

Related: No severance of ties with U.S.-Duterte

The senator upheld the President's push for an independent foreign policy, though he noted that Duterte's remarks in China "surprised" him and other members of the delegation, including Cabinet members.

Critics of the administration have accused Duterte of cozying up to China, which does not respect an international tribunal ruling upholding the Philippines' claims in the South China Sea.

Despite the ruling, China has continued activity on reefs and shoals within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone and has barred Filipino fishermen from entering the area.

But following Duterte's state visit, the President expressed optimism that the local fishermen would be allowed access soon.

"The mere fact that the president met the top four Chinese a good indication that China is willing to talk, but let's do it slowly," said Gatchalian.

When asked by "The Source" if the Philippines was on the right foreign policy path, Gatchalian said he'd answer the question in 2018.

"This should translate to the ordinary Filipino. So far the strategy seems to be pragmatic; seems to be the best for the Filipino people. But ask me that after one and a half years," he said.


No to Bataan Nuclear Power Plant

During the visit to China, Gatchalian, who is also chairman of the senate committee on energy, noticed the heavy smog and also mentioned China's use of nuclear power.

The Philippines should consider different types of fuel, including nuclear energy, which is "cheaper and cleaner" than other alternatives, he said.

However, Gatchalian was against the revival of the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, saying that "it's very dangerous."

"First, it's old. Second, it's shrouded in controversy, including corruption. Third, it's a very emotional already for very many people, including the Bataan local government," he said.

He added that there are proposals to convert it into a liquefied natural gas terminal. Gatchalian said that he hopes in the next 15 years, renewable energy will be more accessible.

Gatchalian is also looking into means of cutting down costs of energy, which have yet to be debated in Senate.