PHIL-CHINA WATCH

By Herman Tiu Laurel

ONE of the major crises stemming from current geopolitical tensions that the world is facing today is the global fertilizer shortage threatening food production and mass starvation in many parts of the globe, and the Philippines is not exempted from this danger. It is fortunate that due to correct political principles and practice, China is unaffected by these crises, particularly in fertilizer supply, and in March of 2022 donated millions of pesos worth of fertilizer to the Philippines.

During the turnover of the fertilizer donation, China’s ambassador to the Philippines, His Excellency Ambassador Huang Xilian expressed understanding of the crisis the Philippines faces, “At present, there are concerns about supply shortages and high prices of fertilizers affecting farmers around the globe. I am fully aware that Filipino farmers and consumers are currently experiencing the effect of the problem” and promised that the People's Republic of China will continue to support the welfare of Filipino farmers.

In response, then Philippines’ Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary William Dar intoned, “Let us nurture and enhance the relationship with the People's Republic of China. I think the farmers are now ready to be more receptive to newer technologies....” and to the media, “We have been talking with Ambassador Huang Xilian on the country’s ongoing request to buy fertilizers from China, and we are optimistic about the positive result of our discussions regarding the potential trade.”

Philippine newspapers and news sites headlined, “Department of Agriculture banking on China fertilizer deal.” China is extending special assistance to the Philippines for internally China has imposed an export ban but has made an exception to the Philippines which I surmise is to help President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr. to achieve his stated goal: the PHP20/kilo rice supply to the Filipino consumers. That is the impressive extent to China’s concern and commitment to the Filipino government and people.

China-Philippine agri cooperation’s long history

If we are to do a comprehensive history of Philippine-China agricultural cooperation, we could go back to hundreds of years when in the 15th century China acquired through the Galleon Trade the potato crop from the Philippines, according to Wu Jiewei, Deputy Dean of the Southeast Asian Cultural Studies Department of Peking University. We will limit ourselves to our present times when the full bloom of the “enhanced relations” between China and the Philippines is enjoying a renaissance.

We trace back the current cooperation between China and the Philippines to the efforts of China’s “Father of the Hybrid Rice” Yuan Longping, who made the first of his 30 visits to the Philippines in 1979 and eventually sent 75-hybrid-rice strains to the Philippines for trial which helped local planters reach 15-tons/hectare rice entrepreneur Henry Lim Bon Liong. Secretary Dar said, “The Philippine government, especially in the agriculture sector, will be forever grateful for his [Longping’s] involvement in teaching the hybrid rice cultivation method to our local farmers,”

The boom and bloom in China-Philippine agricultural cooperation and productivity in this 21st Century really erupted when President Rodrigo R. Duterte won the Philippine presidency and thereupon made China his first state visit to a global superpower instead of the traditionally pilgrimage to the United States by all past Philippine presidents. Subsequently, USD25 billion worth of assistance and projects were signed between the two countries that highlighted infrastructure and agricultural projects.

Lineup of agricultural projects

The star of the many China-Philippine cooperation projects are the infrastructure constructions that present impressive public monuments and are most appealing to publish on newspaper front pages and feature in audio-visual reports on TV and the Internet. Hence, the most popular and well-known to the public are the majestic bridges China has donated such as the Estrella-Pantaleon and Binondo-Intramuros bridges which are treated like celebrities, but the agricultural project often tucked in the rural areas and boondocks are no less significant.

Agriculture is the most significant foundation for a free and independent nation as it provides food security, although the other component to achieve that vital security aspect also include infrastructure, energy and industry. Hence, one can say that the China-Philippines cooperation which includes all the components is indeed a wholistic approach to national development. But we are focusing on agriculture and the list in this aspect is long and continues to grow. Meantime, we provide this list below and its impact over time:

On top of the list is the Philippine-Sino Center for Agricultural Technology (PhilSCAT) Program that has been in place for 22 years starting with an initial USD5-million dollars donation from the People’s Republic of China, it’s now cultivating 226,500 hectares of commercial hybrid rice, boosting yields by 308,000 tons and benefiting more than 134,000 farmers. DA Secretary Wiliiam Dar had this to say about PhilSCAT with China:

“Together, we have since worked to increase investments in research and development and training. The results have been nothing less than rewarding. We now know things that we couldn’t have ever known before because of the work of the men and women behind PhilSCAT– and what we have learned enables us to help our farmers reduce their production costs –and increase both their yields and their incomes,” said Dar. On its third phase, PhilSCAT continues to serve with technological breakthroughs in hybrid rice research, genetics and farmers’ training.

In infrastructure for irrigation, there is the PHP11.247-billion Agno River Integrated Irrigation Project which provides irrigation services for 34,450 hectares of farmland in Pangasinan 12-months a year followed by the recently launched PHP4.37-billion Chico River Pump Irrigation Project which now serves to irrigate 8,700 hectares of farmland and benefit more than 4000 households in Cagayan and Kalinga in Northern Luzon.

In aquaculture, China has engaged the Philippines in the Leopard Coral Grouper Seeds (CALLED “SEEDS OF HOPE”) Donation Project has provided 200,000 seeds in two batches to the Philippines as part of China’s “program of sharing aquaculture know-how and seedling”. The Leopard Coral Grouper Seeds when fully grown increases value by 120 times. Expansion of this program is expected as success breeds more interest.

Agricultural and aquaculture training continues as over 400 Philippine officials and experts have attended training courses in China and nearly 200 Philippine officials and experts have received training online from China. As the Covid-19 pandemic eases up, it is hoped that more such educational and training exchanges are conducted, especially with the new interest in China’s “saline rice” or “seawater rice” farming trials, and upland water impounding projects with downstream mini-hydro-electric projects, and floating “cage aquaculture”.

Agricultural trade cooperation with China is a key interest of the Philippines as the pandemic economic recovery and “sanctions war” in the West has deepening the economic crisis in the Philippines. Cooperation with China has made China the third largest export destination of the Philippine agricultural products, and the second largest import source of agricultural products of the Philippines. For example:

Philippine bananas have accounted for more than half of the market share in China since the China-Philippines engagement in 2016. Philippine fresh coconuts have entered the Chinese market for the first time, and the Philippines has become the first Asian country to export avocado to China which used to all come from Latin America and the Caribbean. At the same time, China continues to be the second largest foreign investor in the Philippines with investment in agriculture making major strides.

Major and minor crises visit the Philippines regularly especially during typhoon seasons, but this year a significant crisis visited early due to the crisis in Ukraine. It is fortunate that China’s assistance of 10,000 metric tons of rice donation arrived in as part of its assistance to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) National Operations Resources Center (NROC) for food needy families from the pandemic and now aggravated by the rice in food prices.

At this point, I should reiterate the timely anticipation of China’s authorities to the situations in the Philippines as seen in the March 2022 fertilizer donation intended to ”sustain rice production in the country” faced with skyrocketing world fertilizer prices. While negotiations for further supply in the months ahead aims to be priced at USD500 per metric ton almost 50 percent lower than the USD1,000 global market price. It is here that we see the exemplary concern China has for the Philippines.

The Philippines will rise with China

The greater part of the developing world is facing a debt crisis due to the twin mega-crisis that has descended on the world this past two years. The first crisis if the Covid-19 pandemic that is gradually lifting yet lingers on with feats of new mutations, the second is the unexpected Ukraine war severely aggravated by the US-led “sanctions war” against resource-dominant Russia which has precipitated an energy and food crisis. The Philippines will be spared in large part due to China’s steady support from its wholistic cooperation.

At the bottom of all crises is the food and energy crisis, and both issues are being addressed by China-Philippine cooperation programs. It is, therefore, not surprising that Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos Jr. has chosen to first among the many invitations for a state visit after inauguration China’s invitation, and it will likely be the first foreign travel and call of the new Philippine President before any other. If that will be the case, it will indeed be the wisest decision.

China is the only major economy growing despite the pandemic and the Ukraine “sanctions war” by staying clear of the conflict, treating all nations equally, focusing on helping build global peace and prosperity and not taking one side of the “small blocs” against another. The rest of the developing world agrees hence the China-led BRICS is also growing. China is now the indispensable partner of any nation that seeks stability and growth, and most certainly of the partner of choice of the Philippines.

Teamed up with China, the Philippines is not only safe but also assured to be able to benefit from the Asia-Pacific regional tranquility and growth but also ensured to be able to exert its influence in promoting peace amongst all nations as part of the concert of nations. It is certainly essential that China-Philippines agricultural cooperation be further expanded by the new Philippine government to guarantee its success in the six years to come.


Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the foregoing article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Philippine News Agency (PNA) or any other office under the Office of the Press Secretary.

About the Columnist

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Herman Tiu Laurel is a veteran journalist and founder of think tank PHILIPPINE-BRICS Strategic Studies.