Philippines probes “creeping invasion” of Chinese students in Cagayan province 

In a resolution filed in the Philippines Congress on March 20, Joseph Lara, a Cagayan representative, and Faustino Dy V, a representative from Isabela province, pointed out “an alarming increase in the number of Chinese citizens coming into the province of Cagayan as students enrolled in universities”. On April 17, the Philippine Star reported that more than 4,600 Chinese nationals have enrolled in a local university in the Cagayan Province, leasing residences in various parts of Tuguegarao City. Cagayan Province is at the northern tip of Luzon Island facing Taiwan.

Lara highlighted that the number of Chinese nationals in the province has become “highly suspicious and alarming”.

Alluding to hostilities between Beijing and Manila in the South China Sea dispute, Lara said: “(With) the prevailing situation in the West Philippine Sea and in view of Cagayan’s strategic geographical location, the increasing number of Chinese students in the province poses serious concern to the national security of the Philippines.”

Both Lara and Dy V claimed that the large presence of Chinese students could undermine the Philippines’ national security and economy, primarily owing to the involvement of these foreigners in “spurious schemes.” The Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson, Col. Francel Margareth Padilla, assured the public that the military will collaborate with the Philippine National Police to investigate the matter.

Jonathan Malaya, assistant director general of the Philippines National Security Council, said a team had been deployed to the capital of Cagayan to probe the issue.

“Our intelligence units have been assigned to take a look at the situation there. Is this a case of a national security threat, or is this just a case of people wanting to study in the Philippines?” Malaya said. 

Congressman Robert Ace Barbers said the inundation of Chinese nationals in the Philippines is disturbing, insisting that China’s “creeping invasion has begun.” He voiced concerns about reports of Chinese nationals’ “unexplainable and inexplicable presence” in the Philippines, claiming they had even obtained Filipino birth certificates, drivers’ licenses, unified multi-purpose identification cards and passports.

“How can they, in large numbers, not arouse suspicion to any agency unless the people responsible have been blinded by money or are grossly incompetent and ignorant?” he questioned. He highlighted a case of Chinese nationals who successfully became Philippine Coast Guard auxiliary members. 

In March, a senior coastguard official divulged that the auxiliary unit had 36 Chinese nationals on the active roster of civilian volunteers for two years prior to their discharge. A military officer also claimed that Camp Aquinaldo was surrounded by Chinese nationals living in condominiums, who worked in offshore gaming operations. He alleged that the Chinese outnumbered the soldiers in the camp. Chester Cabalza, a security analyst, remarked that “what is alarming here is the influx of Chinese students which never happened before” amid existing Sino-Philippine tensions revolving around the South China Sea.

Escalating sovereignty clashes between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea have prompted Manila to boost its ties with the U.S.

Under the U.S. Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the number of sites for use by U.S. troops increased from five to nine in 2023, two of which are located in Cagayan, namely, the Naval Base Camilo Osias in Santa Ana town and Lal-lo Airport in Lal-lo municipality. Thus, Cagayan harbors geopolitical significance and can be considered a sensitive zone, in wake of existing geopolitical realities surrounding the Taiwan Strait.

The closeness of Chinese students in Cagayan to one of the EDCA sites could pose a risk to Philippine national security risk. Signed in 2014, the EDCA facilitates closer military cooperation between the U.S. and the Philippines, including large-scale joint military exercises, boosting the bilateral alliance.

Responding to calls for a legislative inquiry, the pro-China Cagayan governor, Manuel Mamba, said having Chinese students in Tuguegarao was not a national security threat. He added he was opposed to EDCA and he wanted the doors open to trade and assistance.

“The presence of Chinese students in Cagayan and nationwide is the result of an agreement made by Chinese learning institutions and the Commission on Higher Education,” Mamba stated, alluding to a 2019 agreement between the Philippines Commission for Higher Education (CHED) and China. According to CHED, a considerable number of Chinese students were enrolled in Saint Paul University Philippines, which is granted autonomous status and has the authority to admit foreign students directly.

“Let’s look forward. The Chinese are our trading partners. We don’t have a market for our agricultural products because we are far from Manila.”

Unsurprisingly, China echoed Mamba’s views, declaring on April 18 that concerns over security threat of Cagayan were a “political agenda and self-interest” of individual politicians to “undermine China-Philippines cooperation”.

Photo credit: iStock/bankrx

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