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Beware of China’s generous gifts

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Metro Manila Development Authority employees wash dishes as traffic is seen past Manila’s financial district. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has tapped a China-backed lender to help fund his government’s ‘unprecedented infrastructure buildup’. AFP

Beware of China’s generous gifts

Philippine daily Inquirer/ANN: The philippines could learn a thing or two from ancient mythology. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” the priest Laocoon told the people of Troy in Virgil’s “The Aeneid.” His warning was, of course, famously ignored, and the citizens of the once-free city fell to the invading Greek army from across the sea, thanks to the equally famous Trojan Horse ruse.

Only this time, the threat from across the sea may come from a country offering billions of dollars’ worth of loans. China’s readiness to lend the Philippines funds appears generous on the surface, and is ostensibly meant to help fund a key campaign promise of the Duterte administration: a P9-trillion infrastructure buildup program that will uplift the economy, provide jobs and put the country at par with its regional neighbors.

However, reports have abounded in recent months about how other debtor nations, many of them less affluent and underdeveloped, have fallen into China’s so-called debt-trap diplomacy. Montenegro, Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Pakistan, the Maldives, Laos and Fiji are but some of the countries that are now in hock to China for billions of dollars.

These countries – and the Philippines, if our policymakers are not careful enough – may go the way of Sri Lanka which, late last year, had to cede control of a strategic port to the Chinese government for 100 years, after failing to keep up with its loan payments.

The current environment offers many examples of what the Duterte administration should think twice about, or avoid outright, in its quest to improve the country’s economic lot by tapping China’s largesse.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III was correct in justifying the Duterte administration’s policy shift toward official development assistance, instead of the much-maligned public-private partnership scheme, in funding big-ticket infrastructure projects. The government, he said, can borrow funds more cheaply than the private sector and make more money down the road when it privatizes completed projects, compared to what it can earn by selling rights to nonexistent projects today.

No argument there. But Dominguez was probably referring to Japan’s 0.25-0.75-per cent loan rates, and not China’s staggering 3 per cent.

There are absolutely no advantages to borrowing from the Chinese at such rates and conditions. Official development loans from Beijing are more expensive and, as government loans go, come with more strings attached. More ominously, Sri Lanka’s experience shows that China has no compunction about pressing its advantage once a borrower defaults on its debts.

The best rationale Malacañang’s economic managers have managed to cobble so far is that loans from the Chinese government are faster in disbursing. But, it must be pointed out, other lenders would disburse funds just as quickly, or even faster, if the country agreed to less equitable terms as well.

The growing international experience with the bitter pill of Chinese debt diplomacy should serve as a blazing red flag to Malacañang: The Philippines may be better off funding its infrastructure projects through loans from the governments of Japan, South Korea, the European Union or the United States. In fact, based on the cost alone, anyone but China. Or, the Duterte administration can use its political will to remove the bureaucratic inertia that is preventing the private sector from bringing its own resources to bear on much-needed public infrastructure projects.

Mythology tells of how Troy became a vassal state of Greece after the weary Trojans ignored warnings against accepting too-good-to-be-true presents from covetous neighbors. That scenario, or a variation of it, is happening to many countries around the world on the back of China’s relentless cash campaign. The Philippines must resist becoming one of them.

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