Step into Manila’s Binondo district from the south, and its culture is so rich and fascinating you must enter it twice. Passing under one gate, you then navigate another to find yourself plunged into the latest chapter in the unique comingling of Chinese, Filipino, American and Spanish histories, an entwinement of Taoist, Buddhist and Catholic heritage, mediated by trade, politics and the mixing of peoples for more than 400 years.
Yet those two gates tell a very modern story. The less showy and older of the two was financed and erected by local Chinoy (Tsinoy) people, a group whose name reflects its special and distinct Chinese-Filipino background. The newer, brasher version that now dwarfs it was financed by the shadowy mainland China Energy Fund Committee in 2015 and is supposedly the largest Chinatown arch in the world.
Some worry that the latter narrows Binondo’s mixed cultural identity towards Chinese-ness. Unlike its predecessor, it minimizes the local Tagalog language and conflates the entrance to the diverse Binondo with the more homogenous Chinatown label. Not all locals regard them as one and the same, explaining to Domino Theory that Chinatown is part of Binondo, not its entirety.
As such, the new arch can be viewed as a subtle attempt to realign belonging towards China and a somewhat ominous place marker. Who exactly had the main energy to drive it forward is difficult to ascertain. Was it the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), working through the China Energy Fund as a proxy to light up a beacon in the center of the Philippines’ capital, or the scandal-hit fund itself looking to curry favor as legal problems loomed? Or was Manila’s Mayor Joseph Estrada, a deposed former president who had previously received a pardon for taking illegal payments, sending out a calling card to Beijing?
The Estrada administration described the arch as a goodwill gesture to soften bilateral relations as the Philippines took China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in relation to its de facto annexation, exploitation and construction over parts of the South China Sea, referred to by Manila as the West Philippines Sea. Yet, given the CCP’s growing habit of treating Chinatowns the world over as its own domain, the gift has the potential, in effect, to cede more territory to Beijing with the local Chinoys thrown into the deal, regardless of how they might feel about the matter.
A mere stone’s throw away from the controversial arch stands yet another stark gift: the Binondo-Intramuros “Friendship” Bridge. Proudly displaying the flags of China and the Philippines side by side as if chunks of the ocean were not being aggressively seized by one from the other, it has its origins at the confluence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Build, Build, Build policy of former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte.
With bright, white curvilinear styling that has little in common with the wider area’s Spanish colonial ambience, the bridge was pushed to completion in 2022 despite UNESCO concerns that it would create “indirect and long-term impacts” on a nearby World Heritage site, one of only eight in the whole of the Philippines.
Described as iconic by China state media nonetheless, it is less than 300 meters from an existing bridge that already crosses the same stretch of the Pasig River and is seemingly better loved as a $60 million shaded haven for skateboarding than as a relief conduit for traffic. Thus, the logic for its expensive creation is not immediately obvious, unless one considers it another ostentatious symbol of where the future lies for the people of Binondo, a vehicle to employ Chinese workers or as a de facto bribe for the Philippines to turn a blind eye to China’s heist of its maritime territory.
Whatever the reasons, a key role in the bridge’s construction was held by CCCC Highway Consultants, a subsidiary of the majority state-owned China Communications Construction Company Limited (CCCC). Previously debarred by the World Bank on account of fraudulent activity in the Philippines, the latter is a U.S.-sanctioned entity and has facilitated construction of an illegal island on Panganiban Reef, also known as Mischief Reef, which is an internationally recognized part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The island is believed by the U.S. to serve military purposes.
Filipino decision-makers at the highest level have identified no contradiction between the CCCC’s alleged destruction of the Philippines’ natural resources for the strategic militarization of the Pacific in locations such as Panganiban and giving it the go-ahead to build its showy propaganda bridge, which, according to one local man, only really leads to Chinatown, right in the heart of Manila. Indeed, they went much further, handing a later-canceled, multi-billion-dollar airport contract to the company and allowing its involvement in a massive land reclamations, which are being conducted across more than 20 locations in Manila Bay, too.
A visit to the one of these, the Pasay Reclamation Development Project, revealed idle trucks that look like tiny specks atop a 500,000-square-meter surface of rubble that has been poured into Manila’s waterfront. Alongside CCCC, Dutch firm Boskalis is also engaged in the reclamation, which is proposed to become an entire new residential and commercial district under the auspices of Filipino property giant SM Prime Holdings Inc., an entity with expanding links to China.
Reportedly in relation to the development, fines were issued to Chinese vessels for operating outside of the jurisdictions of their approval earlier this year, and the transformation of sea into land has proceeded without the completion of comprehensive social and environmental impact assessments in one of just 18 countries worldwide that are described as mega-biodiverse by the Convention on Biological Diversity.
This oversight gave current Philippines President Bongbong Marcos the ammunition to order a pause to all the Manila Bay land reclamations, some of which may affect naval access, in August of this year, just days after the U.S. embassy had raised its voice against the interventions. The moratorium would seem to include the New Manila Bay-City of Pearl initiative, too, a high-end smart city that has been hyped as one of the largest of China’s Belt and Road investments anywhere in the world.
While a member of staff at a nearby restaurant confirmed to Domino Theory that work on the ground had indeed been discontinued at the Pasay site, a move that pleases the U.S., much damage is already baked in, and a subsequent restart to it and others like the City of Pearl is far from beyond the realm of possibility. The aforementioned bridge was briefly suspended not so long ago as well, and wiggle room for corrective measures has been left by Yulo-Loyzaga, the environment secretary, according to reports in the Philippines’ press.
Nevertheless, as things stand, the abandoned construction sites at Pasay and elsewhere are adding to an elephants’ graveyard of decrepit projects that have amassed along Manila Bay. Several could presumably have been regenerated by an “ecological civilization” without the need to create vast new construction surfaces in the ocean, as could existing areas of the city where residents are in desperate need of cleaner, healthier living circumstances.
Yet, it seems that each new investor has to make their own thumbprint on Manila. Perhaps this will be the true face of China-vaunted multilateralism in countries where rules appear somewhat optional for the moneyed and powerful.