Ship launchings are happy events. The recent launch of the US$68-million, 114,000-DWT crude oil tanker Eser K at Hanjin‘s mammoth shipyard at the Subic Bay Freeport north of Manila was no exception. It was the 12th local newbuilding to be completed by the South Korean company, another happy milestone that should make everyone forget that the Philippines still has no indigenous shipbuilding industry to speak of.

The reality isn’t changed by the fact that Hanjin has some 36 ships in its Subic orderbook until 2012.The Subic Freeport authorities will naturally disagree. They have been hyperventilating over the presence of Hanjin at the Freeport and making some such declaration as the country becoming a major shipbuilding nation. They are partly correct. Thanks to Hanjin, the Philippines has been catapulted to the top five or six shipbuilding countries in the world. But what is often overlooked is that such rankings are by country of domicile (the place where the newbuilding projects are undertaken) – a distinction maintained by the Bremen-based Institute of Shipping Economics and Logistics in its regular monitoring of the global shipbuilding industry.

The plain truth is that the Philippines’ shipbuilding sector is squarely in the hands of foreigners – Hanjin in Subic (and probably soon in northern Mindanao as well), Japan’s Tsuneishi in Cebu and Keppel of Singapore in Cebu and Batangas. They’re all here because of the cheap local labour. The only Filipino-owned company that’s into the newbuilding game in any significant manner is Herma Shipyard in Bataan province. Herma, though, isn’t a player in the commercial sense as it has been constructing double-hulled tankers for a sister company, a domestic tanker operator, not for third-party customers.

Even the once-thriving small tug and fishing boat construction industry in Navotas town in the northwestern part of Metro Manila is no more – killed by the lack of government support and the unbridled entry of secondhand vessels from Japan. So it’s really all desert now. The Koreans, the Japanese and the Singaporeans can pack up and leave tomorrow, and the Filipinos will not be any closer to having their own shipbuilding industry that would earn them the title ‘shipbuilding nation.’ Those fond of brandishing the phrase to describe the country are seeing a mirage. ~Barista Uno

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