Lessons from Vietnam
EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - April 25, 2019 - 12:00am

Upon landing in Hanoi last week for a quick visit to the Vietnamese capital, I had to adjust my watch an hour back.

Vietnam is behind the Philippines by one hour. After a few days in Hanoi, I boarded the flight back to Manila and here at home now, I had to re-adjust the time again. 

But our edge over our Southeast Asian neighbor, it seems, is limited to just the time difference.

In many ways, Vietnam is way ahead of us now.

Dealing with dragons

For one, Vietnam has been dealing with China much better than we are on the issue of the disputed seas.

There is so much to learn from this nation with regard to way it has been handling China’s aggression in the South China Sea.

Early this year, Reuters reported that Vietnam is even pushing for a pact that will outlaw China’s ongoing activities in the South China Sea such as the building of artificial islands. 

Vietnam, indeed, has managed to strike a balance between defending its territories and still maintaining economic relations with China.

Surely, we can learn so much from our neighbor in terms of dealing with dragons in our seas.

Vietnam has no doubt shown its willingness to prevent Chinese dominance in the South China Sea even as it maintains trade relations with the world’s second largest superpower.

In 2014, Vietnam showed exactly this when China deployed an oil rig into the disputed waters. Vietnam protested against China and widespread anti-China protests erupted in the aggrieved nation.

Against this backdrop, Vietnam and China’s trade relations have strengthened. In fact, according to Bloomberg, China had overtaken the United States as Vietnam’s largest export market in 2017.

Bloomberg said that Vietnam’s exports to China totalled $50.6 billion in 2017, compared to $46.5 billion in exports to the US in the same year. 

China is also the Philippines top trading partner. In 2017, Philippine exports to China grew 8.4 percent with electronics as top exports.

This is good, of course, but as I’ve said before we have yet to find out if China will turn out to be a cuddly white panda or a fire-spewing dragon.

‘No debt trap’

China, for its part, is always going the extra mile in assuring the world that its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a “sincere effort toward peace, stability and development.”

At the Boao Forum on Monday, I listened to Filipino and Chinese government officials discuss various issues in the region. 

In his message during the forum, China Charge d’ affaires Tan Qingsheng said China has “no hidden agenda.”

“One thing I would like to emphasize here is that China has no hidden agenda or strings attached to the cooperation and support for the Philippines.  The so-called ‘China debt trap’ accusation is completely groundless. According to the statistics disclosed by the central bank of the Philippines, loans from China only accounts for merely 0.65 percent of the country’s total debt,” Tan said.

“Even if the planned financing is implemented, the figure will only be around 4.5 percent by 2022.  If we compare the interest rates in US dollar terms, the interest rate of Chinese loans is actually very similar or even lower than that of other countries. Aside from that, China-Philippines economic cooperation will definitely create more job opportunities for Filipinos. It’s more cost effective for Chinese companies to hire local workers than Chinese workers,” he added.

Tan also said there are about 50 large-scale Chinese companies based in the Philippines that have employed more than 16 thousand Filipinos so far.

“The number is expected to increase in the coming years,” he said.

After my quick visit to Hanoi, I couldn’t help but think that there’s really so much we can learn from it in dealing with China.

And whether we like it or not, we have to deal with this superpower. China is no doubt an important trading partner for us.

As the joke goes, “God made the world, the rest is made in China.”

But as we enhance our economic relations with China, let us also maintain a strong stance when it comes to our disputed seas.

If Vietnam can do it without fear, so can we.

Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales.

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