The southern Philippine island of Mindanao is a perfect fit with China's Belt and Road Initiative and, in particular, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, Philippine officials said.
The southern ports of Sasa in Davao City and General Santos are among the world's deepest natural waterways, they said.
Sasa International Seaport sits on the west coast of the Davao Gulf and is the biggest and busiest port on the gulf. As the tuna fishing capital of the Philippines, General Santos sits in Sarangani Bay on the southern tip of Mindanao and opens to the Celebes Sea on the Pacific Ocean.
Mindanao has both strategic and economic significance. Strategically, the southern part of the island is a natural waterway linking the Sulu and Celebes seas with the Pacific Ocean.
Economically, it is one of the most resource-rich regions in the world. It is also a key part of the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area.
Peter Lavina, a former deputy Cabinet secretary in the government of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, said Mindanao is a natural gateway to the grouping. "It is a region that has been trading together for centuries. It has untapped potential.
"It forms a natural link with the maritime silk road from Southeast Asia to the Pacific," he said.
Abul Khayr Alonto, chairman of the Mindanao Development Authority, thinks the East ASEAN Growth Area has a strong future and views the Belt and Road as positive for the development of the region. China has been a development partner of the growth area since 2009, through a framework of economic cooperation that paved the way for technical assistance and learning exchanges.
Established in the 1990s, the grouping has never reached its full economic and strategic potential. However, with China playing an ever-increasing role, it has been given a new lease on life, officials said.
According to Alonto, ties with China will help the growth area achieve "the long-term goal of pan-Asian connectivity".
Aaron Jed Rabena, a visiting fellow at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, said the Philippines "could even be designated as the BRI's 'West Pacific corridor' or the maritime transshipment hub between China, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific".
The BRI, however, is not confined to the southern part of the Philippine archipelago.
He said the dialogue mechanisms under the Duterte administration between the two countries－including increased high-level engagements, investment pledges, loan offers, development assistance, commercial activity and tourist arrivals from China－are prime indicators of an improved relationship.
"The BRI is considered by both Beijing and Manila as a vital cooperative framework in Philippine development strategy and in maintaining practical bilateral cooperation," he said.
He said "significant" progress in the BRI's five dimensions of cooperation－policy coordination, infrastructure development, trade and investment, financial integration and people-to-people connectivity－in the Philippines "underscores the rising stakes in and the deepening complex interdependence of Philippines-China relations".
Rabena said China's Belt and Road efforts in the Philippines are a clear manifestation that the BRI is a whole-country approach, which includes the active participation of China's private sector.
The intensification of the BRI's five dimensions of cooperation in the Philippines may make a considerable difference in changing the prevailing mindset in the Philippines about the quality of Chinese-made goods, services and infrastructure.
"The Philippines not only stands to benefit from the BRI in the form of grants, loans and investments, but even in terms of the opportunity to learn from China's development and anti-poverty strategy," Rabena said.
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