POSTSCRIPT / January 21, 2018 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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Davao capitalists ride high nowadays

WITH Davao City having emerged as the political epicenter of the Philippines, businessmen from that home base of President Rodrigo Duterte are riding high, with many of them reporting on corporate acquisitions, business expansions, and such giant ventures.

There is Dennis Uy, for instance, whose corporate vehicle just bought the Family Mart chain of some 67 stores. He also owns Phoenix Petroleum, an issue listed on the Philippine stock exchange. He is wrapping up a deal that will dwarf anything standing in the sprawling Clark Freeport in Pampanga.

Reports are rife that Uy is now poised to enter the Benham Rise, a 13-million-hectare fishing sanctuary said to hold manganese and other heavy metals on top of its rich fishery resources, and possibly oil and gas deposits.

One question often asked is how Uy’s Benham Rise plans would jibe with President Duterte’s announced intention to allow China, which has taken over strategic features in the West Philippine Sea, to engage in exploration in the waters on the east side of Luzon.

Clark Global City Corp., an affiliate of Uy’s holding company Udenna Corp., plans to invest an initial P6 billion to develop a 177-hectare area in the former US air base into a new central business district.

That amount will go mostly to building roads, drainage and other development, Freddie Placino, CGCC vice chairman, said in December. He added: “What we’ll do is like BGC (Bonifacio Global City). We develop it horizontally and let the other developers participate in developing vertically… in phases over 10 years.”

Even now, visitors to Clark will already see the structures put up on 47 hectares of the CGCC site by the previous owner Global Gateway Development Corp.

Clark Global City Corp. has acquired Global Gateway Development Corp., a firm based in Cayman Islands, with Bank of China, BDO Unibank Inc., and Philippine National Bank as financial partners. Uy has also taken over Chelsea Shipping Corp., 2Go Group Inc., Petronas Energy Philippines, and Enderun Colleges Inc.

Aiming to become the country’s prime mover of vital goods and people, Uy’s Chelsea has begun acquiring more vessels. Its Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. bought in July a 6,348-gross-register-ton cargo vessel called MV Orient Spirit, with a capacity of 400 20-foot equivalent units.

Another figure in the magic Davao circle is Jo Soliman, head honcho of the Pure Group of businesses with stakes in agriculture and construction.

He has been bandied about as a Duterte ally who funded the supposed Duterte Diehard Supporters (DDS), reputed to be behind the social media phenomenon that catapulted the city mayor to the presidency. A Bloomberg story last month credited Soliman with helping fund Duterte’s social media campaign.

Soliman is reported to be the chosen one to undertake the construction of an offshore facility that the Department of Agriculture envisions to rise in the shallowest portion of Benham Rise.

Agriculture Secretary Manny Pinol sought last May, and was granted by the President, the go-signal for the construction of a food supply zone in the rise with a budget of P5 billion.

That P5 billion was to be on top of the P213-billion agriculture budget. Pinol had said that Duterte agreed to have a large cold storage area in the Benham Bank reportedly under Soliman’s Pure Agri LLC.

“This will serve as research facility and advance command post center in the area to avoid rampant illegal fishing,” Pinol said then.

There has been no mention of Uy or Soliman partnering with Chinese business groups or their being beneficiaries of Chinese investments or loans. Nothing has been heard either of any followup to the President’s order renaming the vast area as Philippine Rise.

• Legal, political fireworks seen

SOLIMAN’S venture faces transparency and governance tests. One question is how come the Davao businessman has been assured of the green light when a project of that nature should at least go through a modicum of a bidding protocol or a Swiss challenge.

Opening the rich and strategic marine expanse to Chinese exploration has been assailed by Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio as a dumb idea, a hint of upcoming legal and political fireworks over a Philippine territory still untouched by foreign interlopers.

A leading figure in the Philippines’ fight against China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea, Carpio criticized Duterte’s plan in light of Beijing disrespecting the 2016 award favorable to Manila of a United Nations-backed arbitral court at The Hague nullifying China’s overarching claim.

Aside from the Philippines, other claimants of parts of the South China Sea through which $5 trillion in global trade passes every year, are Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

In 2012, the United Nations officially recognized Benham Rise as part of the Philippine continental shelf, giving the country sovereign rights to explore and exploit resources on the submerged plateau.

Last week, Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano said the Department of Foreign Affairs had allowed a research vessel operated by the Institute of Oceanology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences to conduct research in the rise despite China’s militarization of its artificial islands in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone.

He added that the foreign office rejected a similar request for a research permit from a French non-profit group, the Tara Expeditions Foundation.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 21, 2018)

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