One of the most interesting things to come out of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s four-nation tour of Southeast Asia this weekend was the announcement that the Philippines and China have formally signed off on a deal to build a railway linking two former U.S. military bases on the island of Luzon.
The 71-kilometer single-track freight line will link Subic Bay Freeport Zone and Clark International Airport, which once housed two of the largest American military bases outside the U.S.
Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian described the $940 million railway as the biggest Chinese government-funded project in the Philippines to date. “Our cooperation continues! China and the Philippines just signed the commercial contract for the Subic-Clark railway project,” Huang effused in a post on Facebook.
The ambassador said that the railway will take an estimated 42 months to construct, by which time it would lead to improvements “in logistic efficiency and other economic activities” in the surrounding region. “Once completed, the railway will build resilient linkages between the commercial zones along the Subic-Clark corridor,” he wrote.
The agreement underscores the closeness of China and the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016, during which time Duterte has soft-pedaled disputes in the South China Sea, and sought to tap Beijing for much-needed infrastructure funding.
During Foreign Minister Wang’s visit on the weekend, he repeated past pledges on infrastructure funding and said that China planned to donate 500,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine to the Philippines in line with a previous commitment by President Xi Jinping. A week earlier, the Philippines secured 25 million doses of Chinese company Sinovac Biotech’s CoronaVac.
“He [Wang] announced that China will donate 500,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccine to the Philippines. He likewise affirmed China’s resolve to do everything to ensure that vaccines become a global good,” the Palace said in a statement. A statement from Duterte’s office also confirmed that Wang Yi had also “announced the finalization” of the Subic-Clark Railway Project agreement “this week.”
Subic Bay was the site of a massive U.S. naval station that functioned as the “service station and supermarket” for Washington’s globe-spanning naval armada. Seized by the U.S. after its victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898, it would go on to play a key role in every U.S. overseas engagement of the twentieth century. When the Americans withdrew in 1992, the area was transformed into the Subic Bay Freeport Zone. A similar transition has been made at the former U.S. Clark Air Base to the northeast, which was closed after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in mid-1991.
Given the region’s history and importance to the global projection of U.S. power, the construction of a Chinese-funded railway between the two former bases is highly symbolic of the shifting relations of power in Southeast Asia (as I have written elsewhere).
Yet past experience suggests that the announcement should not be taken at face value. While Beijing has promised the Duterte administration billions in financing for the “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program, few projects have actually eventuated. After well-publicized MoU signing ceremonies, many have subsequently hit bureaucratic snags around land acquisitions and permitting.
Part of the problem is the complex, polycentric nature of the Philippines’ bureaucratic state; part, also, is due to the warm feelings of many Filipinos toward the country’s former colonial power, and a resistance to the Duterte administration’s embrace of Chinese largess. While Duterte’s unexpected election has granted China a significant strategic opening, there are limits to how far the relationship has been able to proceed.