Interview

Media Interview with Jose Santiago L. Sta. Romana, Ambassador of the Republic of the Philippines to the People’s Republic of China

OPENING STATEMENT:

I’ll just open up with a few remarks. I think you already had a briefing with Asec. Montealegre sa Manila ‘no.

So I want to welcome all of you to the Philippine Embassy. Welcome to old friends who were here 2017 and also in Boao last year, those who are — some familiar faces.

As you know, the President is arriving later today, if there is no change in schedule or flight. And tomorrow, there will be bilateral meetings with President Xi and with Premier Li.

As you know, this Belt and Road forum, this is the second session. The first one, the President was able to attend in 2017. And this year the importance of this is that it’s a bigger and it’s actually the major diplomatic event in China this year.

As you know, there will be about 37 heads of state. So it will be quite a meeting this year.

It’s a chance for the Philippines, for President Duterte to participate in this broad platform for economic development and regional cooperation. It’s also an opportunity for the Philippines to seek business, economic opportunities, new outlets for — markets for our exports, new sources of foreign investment.

But the key really is the idea of connectivity. And this is what has been the factor why the President is attending. As you know, we start on the basis of our national interest and we really start from the principle of convergence and synergy.

We’re — we see that there is a convergence in terms of the Philippines’ Build, Build, Build program and the Belt and Road initiative’s focus on connectivity and infrastructure cooperation.

And there’s also a convergence between BRI, the Build, Build, Build, and the ASEAN vision of — for Connectivity. So it is in this convergence that we try to seek synergy and to provide an impetus that will promote our economic interest, that will boost our economic development, and ultimately that will bring benefits to the Filipino people.

So the President will have a chance to address the forum and to present the Philippine perspective on regional connectivity.

As you know, the venue of the forum is quite far from Beijing. It’s about an hour away. But I think you’ll have access. I don’t know how you’ll have access but you’ll have — there will be a viewing room and you can watch on TV because it’s a very restricted, a very secure area.

Okay, so on that note. Let’s open the floor for Q&A because I know you have certain interest in certain areas that you want to ask about.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:

Q: Mr. Ambassador, I just would like…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Please identify yourself…

Q: Edith Regalado of the Philippine Star. I just would like to ask that given what happened to the Philippines, particularly in the Visayas and Luzon for the past two days, for those three earthquakes already, succeeding earthquakes. Do you think there will be something also from China or — given that we have this Build, Build, Build projects, will there will be some, you know, will there be some changes, amendments to projects since there are areas that will be — that were affected also? Or will China give additional aid in terms of what happened to the country?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: This is a question for the Chinese to answer.

Q: Yeah, yeah, I know.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: But I expect in terms of cooperation and from past behavior of the Chinese, I expect it’s possible that they will offer some assistance.

Q: Yeah, that’s what I’m asking.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Now, what it will be, it is too early for me to speak because I haven’t had any direct contact with the Chinese on this. But the situation is still evolving and there’s still a couple days. If there are any, we’ll make the announcements.

Q: Would it be possible that…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Because in the past, when it came to typhoons the Chinese have been providing assistance to the typhoon victims.

Q: Another question Mr. Ambassador, would it be possible that they are going to make the announcement in front of the President, when the President would be here during the bilateral or…?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: It’s always possible. It’s also possible much later on when you have an assessment of the damage because the story is still unfolding. I mean we have an initial assessment based on the President’s trip to Porac yesterday and then those who’ve gone to Samar.

But for that to filter up to the Chinese, they’re basically relying on their embassy and the news reports. So I think when they have done the…

But it’s hard for me to speak on behalf of the Chinese. I certainly not in a position to do so. But I’m just saying from previous experience with them. When there is a — it’s not only the Philippines, but there are other countries that have experienced disaster, the Chinese have been willing to provide some assistance.

Q: But there’s a third one that struck early this morning, the one in Dinalupihan also, just near the original place.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: And how? How strong was it?

Q: 4 or…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: I see. Okay. Yeah.

Yes?

Q: Ambassador, Doris Dumlao, Philippine Daily Inquirer. Could you share some key talking points during the bilaterals that you expect with regards to — and also with regards to West Philippine Sea?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Yes. Okay. I know there’s a great interest in terms of, you know, West Philippine Sea, South China Sea. The — I do not wish to preempt the President on how — what he wants to bring up because this is his prerogative.

But usually, when the two leaders meet, they do a general review of the bilateral — the state of bilateral relations. They exchanged views on regional and international issues. And of course, South China Sea is a major concern in terms of our bilateral relationship, as well as in the — in terms of the region.

So from previous experience, the two leaders usually do a general review of the situation of the bilateral relation including the situation of the South China Sea and our concerns in the West Philippine Sea.

I should add here that the West Philippine Sea has been the subject of very tense diplomatic discussions. We had a bilateral consultative mechanism in early April. I participated in that. And the bilateral consultative mechanism has been going on since 2017, this was the result of the President’s visit in October 2016 to set up this mechanism where we can discuss issues of concern in South China Sea, West Philippine Sea.

And so the issue for example of the Pag-asa, you know, Scarborough Shoal, Panatag Shoal, the issue of the giant clams, the swarming, this was discussed extensively during the last BCM.

And although it was a very contentious issue, there were differences of views, we have different positions on the Chinese. Both sides agreed to resolve this issue through diplomatic negotiations.

So the basic approach is, to discuss the disputes but to manage it so that they will not become — they will not turn into a crisis and also to manage it so that they will not be an obstacle to the development of areas of cooperation.

As you know, Philippines, our bilateral relations is basically consist of two general areas — the disputes and the areas where there are no disputes.

The disputes, do not define everything. They’re only a part of the overall picture. So where there are no disputes, like trade, economics, science, culture, we’re able to fast-track.

Where there are disputes, we discuss through diplomatic channels or through the BCM. And of course, we have differences on the issue of sovereignty.

We claim — our position is that KIG, the Kalayaan Island Group belongs to the Philippines. The Chinese position is opposite, they claim all of the Spratlys. So we have basic differences but we have agreed that we should deal with these differences through peaceful and diplomatic means.

In terms of Pag-asa, through the diplomatic discussions, the Chinese have sought to reassure us that they have no intention to use force or to occupy Pag-asa. So they have assured us.

But you know, the diplomatic action is take them on their word but verify and keep your vigilance high. So trust but verify. So this is our attitude. We welcome any reassurance of you know, that there won’t be any act of force against our people, against our soldiers.

But at the same time, we have to remain vigilant. We combine diplomacy with deterrence. And that’s why you still have to build your capability in terms of deterrence.

The Chinese have also given the reassurance that the traditional fishing rights of the Filipino fishermen there will be safeguarded, together with those of the Chinese.

So here, you really have — you know you’re working close quarters here. And so the real issue is how to avoid any miscalculation, how to avoid any conflict and how to deescalate and to exercise restraint so that the issue will not become a crisis and so that it will not become a situation that will obstruct the positive trajectory of the relations.

Q: Are you confident that this will be direction that will — it won’t escalate?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Well, that is the goal. And that’s what we’re working on and you’ll of course have to — when you go back and you have the briefings from the military and the other sectors that have a — you know on the ground or on the water, they know the situation.

We’ll see, because what we’re hoping for is that the situation improves, that there won’t be a deterioration in the situation.

And so far, so far as you know, there — the supply lines to Pag-asa, there has been no interdiction. It continues. And that is the assurance we’re getting. And then the supply lines to Ayungin, which — where there was a blockade before, before 2016. That has been lifted and as long as its food supplies and humanitarian supplies for our soldiers that remains to be the case.

So that is our concern. Keep the supply lines open, no use of force, and safeguard the traditional fishing rights of our fishermen.

Q: Sir, just as a follow up. So the Chinese moving away from our territories is out of the question?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: It’s a subject of intense diplomatic discussion right now. What we’re hoping for and what we’ve communicated is self-restraint. You know, mutual self-restraint, for both sides to avoid any miscalculation and any conflict.

Q: But since you mentioned that this is subject of intense diplomatic negotiations, we have asked them to…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: [Certainly?] We have asked them to exercise self-restraint and to maintain appropriate distance.

Because you see the distance between Pag-asa and Subi Reef is only 12 to 14 nautical miles. You ask them to go beyond 12 nautical miles which means go back to your place.

So they — what we hope is that they do not come within a distance that could — that is subject to misunderstanding and miscalculation, basically to keep the appropriate distance.

Q: And the initial response was what?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: They’re considering it. Of course, their position is that they — their position is that they own even Pag-asa. So we have a basic differ — we have a basic difference but we’re willing to continue discussing. So that we can resolve this peacefully and if it cannot be resolved right away to manage it peacefully and diplomatically. So that’s where we are.

Q: When did we ask them to…?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Back — we’ve asked them…

Q: When was the most recent?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: The most recent was — is last week. In terms of Beijing, but I think in Manila the discussions have been even more often.

Q: But Beijing last week?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Last, yes.

Q: This is the preparation for the bilateral, so…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: No, we have this regular exchanges with the Chinese. When there is an issue, we try to use the President’s preferred method — negotiation, face-to-face conversation. So whenever there is a chance, we try to present, you know, our sentiments.

This is also by the way the case, particularly in Manila, DFA and the Chinese embassy, the discussions are ongoing from what I hear ‘cause Secretary Locsin just arrived last night and I was with him. So that’s my understanding too.

Q: So we’ve asked them to move away from just Pag-asa or Scarborough?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Keep distance.

Q: Keep distance is the word. Pag-asa only?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: That has been the Philippine position for quite some time already.

Q: Scarborough?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Scarborough is a — is a more complicated issue because it goes back to 2012. If we had not withdrawn and that’s what we’re trying to avoid, the lesson of Scarborough is keep cool, stick to diplomacy, don’t withdraw and keep talking.

Don’t let another power talk on your behalf, broker a deal that you cannot verify. You have to do it yourself and talk to them directly. So that’s what we’re trying to avoid, a loss of any territory that we are — that is under our control, hold on to what we have.

And what we have lost in the past, if we could regain access through diplomacy. Diplomacy is the first line of defense. And we persist in it and we try to accomplish our goals through peaceful, diplomatic means.

This is also the way of upholding the UN Charter.

Q: So you said, if we had not withdrawn?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: In Scarborough, from Scarborough.

Q: Meaning? What was the consequence of that withdrawal?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: We lost. We lost control. And so now it’s the Chinese Coast Guards that is in control.

But at the same time, when the President came in October 2016, as a result of his high-level diplomacy with President Xi, he was able to achieve that provisional consensus, the agreement. Keep Scarborough unrec — keep it the way it is, unreclaimed.

And so far, it’s been holding. There are challenges, there are issues but at least keep it unreclaimed. Preserve it as a fishing reserve and that our traditional access, our traditional fishing rights be respected. And that is what we’re trying to maintain in Scarborough.

Q: Mr. Ambassador, Genalyn po from Manila Bulletin. Sir, do you think the President’s meeting with President Xi would somehow ease this — the latest conflict in Pag-asa?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: That is our hope. That is our goal to ease the tension in the West Philippine Sea, to maintain peace and stability in the area, to avoid miscalculation, to prevent conflict.

Q: Sir, Gerard dela Peña from TV 5. Just want to clarify, so the Chinese continuing with their activities in West Philippine Sea is also out of the question, because if the government has been talks with the Chinese in 2016, what could have gone wrong because as of now, the Chinese are still doing things at the West Philippine Sea? So…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Well, the West Philippine Sea is a broad 200 miles of our — nautical miles. Generally, there has been — the situation has improved. It’s in recent days, in recent weeks and the focus basically has been on Pag-asa in this case.

It has something to do with the feature that was not around before 2016. It was underwater.

You’ve heard of Sandy Cay, it emerged and it’s now a feature. And so there is a provisional agreement between the two sides to keep it unoccupied. So the Chinese are watching us that we won’t occupy, we’re watching them that they won’t occupy.

And the broad consensus right now is keep it unoccupied and for the area — of course from the Philippine perspective, we consider this as part of Pag-asa, as Philippine…

From the Chinese perspective, they consider it as part of their own area. So the key right now is keep it unoccupied.

Q: Sir, previously you mentioned, China is considering the country’s request for [unclear]?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: In other words, we have the Philippine side, even back to the BCM, not only in the recent BCM but even before. This idea of you know, not to swarm and not to prevent our access in terms of the supply lines. And so far, the supply lines have remained open.

So we’ve been able, in that respect. But we of course are — it’s the feeling of anxiety and insecurity among the residence and the soldiers in Pag-asa that we’re concerned about. This is their well-being because of the increase in presence.

The Chinese have a different position, they say that they are just fishing there and they’re just doing what they think they can do in waters that they claim, because there’s a dispute.

So what we’re looking for is a — it’s really a modus vivendi that avoid any conflict, preserve the area for fishing, and to keep the supply lines open for the Philippines.

Q: China has agreed to those…?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: It’s holding up so far.

Q: When you say sir, keep distance, how far from?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: This is a subject of intense diplomatic discussion. In other words, it is difficult because we are such — we are occupying one area — one feature and they’re occupying the other feature and they are very close to each other and in between is the Sandy Cay.

This is really the root of this issue right now. And we hope that this can slowly be managed in such a way that you deescalate the situation and it becomes less of a flashpoint.

Q: But last time we had a deal with them, it’s brokered by the US, they didn’t pull out?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Well, you see, this is the controversy. We don’t know really know what happened in that negotiation, because we were not there.

Some Chinese claim that the deal was only to withdraw from the shoal, not — from inside the lagoon but not the shoal. So in other words, there — we don’t know what happened. That’s why don’t give up direct talks so you know what you’re…

Q: Specifically?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Exactly. And then of course, in any negotiation, you know the diplomatic action, is you trust but you verify. It’s what they say, you have to watch it.

Q: But they’re open at least?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Certainly open to discussion. The Chinese are very — when it comes to negotiation, they stick to their — what they call the core interest, sovereignty.

This is why it’s so sensitive in the West Philippine Sea. Because when it comes to the features, the land, that involves issue of sovereignty for us and we consider it non-negotiable. The Chinese take the same position, it’s non-negotiable. So because of that, then the question is where. We agree though this should not lead to conflict, that this should not lead to exchange of — you know the use of force.

So you try to maintain the situation, you hold on to what you have. And then you try to see where you can find areas of agreement. And the areas of agreement are the access lines, the supply lines.

You know, that’s why we’re able to continue our construction in Pag-asa. And there has been no effort. If there is any interdiction, that would be a major issue.

From what we can see so far, the real issue — it seems to me has to deal with Sandy Cay.

Q: Sir, what was their response on the alleged harassment of fishermen in Panatag Shoal?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: In?

Q: The response of China, ‘yung allegations that fishermen are being harassed by coast guard personnel of China?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: In Panatag right? Panatag. Okay, during the Bilateral Consultative Mechanism, we actually bring specific cases, you know.

For example, the issue of the fish catch, that was being —- that is a triumph of diplo — it’s a small victory of diplomacy.

Do you still hear cases like that?

Q: ‘Yung barter.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Yes. Now it’s become the other way around, from what the recent report on GMA that I saw or ABS-CBN. It’s our fishermen now that goes and try to barter.

Q: And they are getting our clams now?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Well, the clams is a major issue of concern because this has been an issue from — well, before 2016 and it’s a continuing issue. And it’s a major issue in terms of the marine environment.

And the Chinese, based on their own statements and their mass media, supposedly have declared the fishing of giant clams and the sale and manufacture, the use and manufacture of giant clams since January 2017.

So there is an issue of accountability. If that is the case, how come this is happening? And that is an issue that we continue to discuss.

Q: Declared as what sir?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Sorry?

Q: Illegal?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: They declared it as illegal. You can actually…

Q: Illegal?

AMBASSADOR STA.ROMANA: Illegal. In Hainan, in this fishing village where most of the people — most of the fisherman comes from Tanmen in Hainan. And you can check this out, you can research this in the — you can Google it. There is that statement that they did.

So between the statement and the reality, you need some accountability and that is why through diplomacy that’s what we try to achieve.

So what I’m saying is that, there are things that you could influence their behavior if you bring it up for discussion like that fish catch — the issue of fish catch, to try to put a stop to that.

The issue of the giant clams is a challen — is a conti — still a challenge. They themselves say that they are against it.

And they say if you find, take note of the ship number and the time and we will — they will investigate. And so we’re waiting for the results of that.

So, that is what we hope to influence. Because they themselves say they’re against the harvest of giant clams. How come this is happening?

Q: Chinese clams…?

Q: Sir, have we already reported the ship number and that’s what they have done?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: We have had — during the last session…

Q: We have?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: We have — this is before the video that came out, that’s another case. There were cases before.

Q: But if this is continuing, it’s ongoing, so meaning to say, what they’re saying is if you have the number… Do we have that? Have we already furnished them already?

Q: [unclear]

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: That’s why we need your help — media. And then we’re also coordinating with fisheries, coast guard, because before it gets to the DFA, that’s the work of the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea.

Q: But so far nothing? No specific number, no specific vessel number or any…?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: No, no, no, we have had. We’ve cited specific cases in the past.

Q: How many and when was that and we have…?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: This is the subject of diplomatic discussion. I cannot go into the details right now. But let’s just say that’s it’s a continuing issue.

Q: So it’s a continuing issue and we have already submitted those things and…?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: And then we continue to ask…

Q: To wait for the…?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Our fisherman and our media and our own government agencies when they see, to take note. So that it can be reported to the DFA and brought to the attention of the Chinese.

Q: Sir, Pia Gutierrez from ABS-CBN. Sir, the — the case filed by former SFA Del Rosario, did that have any effect or did that put pressure to the Chinese government? Did that have any effect on the ongoing diplomatic negotiations that we’re having?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Well, because it is not done — it is not state-sponsored, it is not done by the Philippine government, it really doesn’t have an — any impact or any impact on the bilateral relations.

The Chinese themselves in their media has basically ignored it.

Q: Ignored it?

AMBASSADOR STA.ROMANA: Yeah. They haven’t reported it in their media. And of course they can — they can read in the international internet if it filters through here. But it hasn’t had an impact on our bilateral relations, on the state of our relations.

Q: If that’s the case, was there also any official ano from the Chinese government, regarding the matter? Had they brought the whole thing before the embassy or nothing?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Well, they inquired, you know, what it means. And we basically explained that these are done by individuals in the Philippines. It is possible for individuals to file a case.

So they wanted — in the sense that they wanted some background whether it was a government policy or not. It’s not.

Q: So they really asked if it was government policy?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: They did asked. Yeah.

Q: Sir, can I go to Scarborough?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Yes.

Q: So as far as that is concerned, the Chinese position is harder than ‘yung Pag-asa ‘no?

AMBASSADOR STA.ROMANA: Well, this is the problem when they are… They also claim Scarborough, you know.

And this — it goes back, we have different views on the issue of sovereignty. As you know, the arbitral tribunal award did not resolve the issue of sovereignty because it cannot. They can only resolve the issue of sovereign rights.

So, on the issue of the access to fishing, I think that — that now has been resolved.

Q: But as far as… You used the word [lost this?] from our perspective that we have lost it or does — did the China…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Lost control.

Q: Yes, lost control. Did they tell us that or was that our…?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Sorry?

Q: Did they tell us that? That we’ve lost control?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: No, no, no. Well, they don’t have to tell us that.

Q: Because they built already? Because they have been building already since that…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Not in Scarborough. They’re not building anything. Because that’s a major issue. If they reclaim…

Q: So the Scarborough…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Scarborough is unreclaimed.

Q: Yeah, yeah. So, Scarborough since that time, no?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: No. That was the fear, that they would reclaim. And I think through diplomacy and through the efforts also of the international community, we have actually prevented the reclamation in Scarborough. Or we have… It has not happened. I mean, remember there were other scholars saying the Chinese already have a plan? The Chinese may have plans as we know. We can’t…

Q: So, what we saw were just plans?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Exactly. If you go to Scarborough, ma’am, there’s no building in Scarborough. It’s in the other — the artificial islands.

Q: So sir if they say, with regard, to Pag-asa, they don’t — they don’t have any intention to occupy it, why are they still there? What was the explanation?

AMBASSADOR STA.ROMANA: I told you, they’re watching Sandy Cay.

Q: Sandy Cay is ours?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: From our point of view. From their point of view, they all — including Pag-asa is theirs. So the point I’m saying is that when it comes to sovereignty, we have basic difference.

But we recognize that given this difference, we want to resolve, to deal with them through diplomacy so that it will not be a crisis point and so that we can resolve this slowly over time. Sovereignty issue as you know can take years, if not decades, maybe generations.

In the meantime though, the key is not to lose what you’re holding onto. And to gain access if you lost — whatever you have lost. And at the same time, to make sure that this underlying difference in sovereignty does not become an obstacle to developing relations.

And that’s why we have a two-track approach. The disputes, it will take time. And we try to resolve what we can.

The areas where there are no disputes, you try to maximize because you’re trying to maximize what — what benefits you could gain.

So, as long as you understand that, then you’d manage the dispute and you maximize the cooperation where you can. That…

Q: But how do you strike a balance…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: The balance is…

Q: That’s why I’m asking…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Our independent foreign policy. That the compass we use is our national interest and our Constitution. Meaning, you defend what is yours, what you believe is yours and you maximize where you can cooperate.

Q: So striking a balance?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: So, in the same way that we view China, not as a hostile or an enemy but rather as a partner in development. And then the aspect where you have differences, you try to max — to manage and you try to deal with — in diplomacy.

The problem is when you’d combine the two tracks and you think with one-track mind and you put the disputes in the front and center, then you have a problem.
So that’s what we’re trying to do, compartmentalize.

Q: But there is also the other problem putting the act — the area of no disputes right in front because there are those — ang dami ng Chinese, ang dami ng ano… We’re already…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: That’s also an issue that we have to…

Q: That’s why I’m asking.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: That’s an issue that we have to…

Q: Without dispute and the other — and then you know, our Filipino, they’ll say…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: The issue of illegal or Chinese presence in the Philippines is an issue we should — that is also subject to, you know, you have to… If it’s illegal, you have to crack down on what’s illegal. If it’s — if there are loopholes, you have to plug the loopholes, okay.

We are encouraging tourism right now, so we issue tourist visas here. But they are stamped not for employment. Somehow…

Q: They’re able to get employed in…?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Yes, so there is a problem that has to be solved. That is now — that’s now being tried to… I just had discussion with Secretary Bello. I just came from that meeting and he said we have to do something.

Q: And what is that you’re going to do?

Q: Would you have data? Would you have the data of how many Chinese are coming in as tourists and then overstay?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Not overstay, that’s — we don’t have — I don’t have the data. We have the data of the tourists, the visas that we issue.

Q: So how many ano — how many visas have we issued already?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Well, the figures are a matter of public record. In around 2016, there was around 600,000, the level of Chinese tourists in the Philippines. We were able to achieve one million in 2017 and 2018, it became 1.25 million. So you do your math, you do your math.

Q: Doubled?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Yes, we doubled.

Q: Did we get about 20 — no, 2.5…?

Q: We had 7.1 million…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Sorry?

Q: 7.1 or 7…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: That’s the total.

Q: Some of those…?

Q: Are they still in the Philippines working?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: No, no, no, no. Because you see it’s like this, I just wanna put it in perspective. Among the ASEAN countries, we’re actually at the tail end. Thailand has about 10 million tourists — Chinese tourists. Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, it’s roughly around five million, thereabouts.

Q: Where do you account the increase?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Sorry?

Q: Where do you attribute the increase?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: For them?

Q: For us.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: For us. For us, of course, we started at a low volume. So the increase is because of the change in policy. With the friendly policy that we have towards China, they lifted the travel advisory. They considered it now safe for Chinese tourists to go to the Philippines.

Now, when they go there, so this is where the issue Secretary Bello was explaining that they have to basically monitor, you know, those who are getting work permits. It has to do with the issue of work permits. And there is a factor in the Philippines that is not present in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore. Guess what it is?

Q: POGO.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Well, I guess Singapore less — they also have. But because of the POGOs in the Philippines. So this is a domestic issue, you know. It’s not something…

Our concern is that we hope — you know because of the rule right now, the Department of Tourism, we’re encouraging tourism. But through tour groups, so they have accredited travel agencies here in the Philippines.

When they are the ones submit — you know who are provided visas, they are responsible for bringing them there and bringing them back.

The exception is except for those who have work permits. So the issue is domestic.

Q: So there should be closer coordination between DOT and DOLE? Because some of the tourists or those posing as tourists end up working with permits…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: I certainly agree with you. And this is something we’re trying to work out, how to tighten the…

Without sacrificing, you know, the progress we want to achieve in tourism, it’s how to avoid illegal or extended presence.

Q: [unclear] overstated, seven million something but it’s just one million?

Q: Kaya nga, paano naging seven million when the actual ano is only 1.2…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Seven million ‘yung Chinese? It can’t be.

Q: Seven million total…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: ‘Yung total tourists. But that includes Korea, the Japanese and all of that. Because the Chinese right now is really the number two.

Q: Because some of those may not be tourists at all.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Yes.

Q: So the 1.25, these are tourists? They apply as tourists?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: They apply as tourists, some of — most of them are part of tour groups when they go to the Philippines.

Q: And you have a separate class of people that applied for work permits, correct?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Yes, but very few get their work permits.

Q: And we don’t count them in the 1.25?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: No, they’re not counted.

Q: So meaning to say that tourists do not naman become illegal workers in the Philippines?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: No, that is the problem.

Q: That’s the problem.

Q: Sir, how many percent…?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: And some of them may not be illegal, they get work permits. But there…

Q: [unclear] companies?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: No, no you have to get it from, I think, a government agency.

Q: Sir, of the 1.25…

Q: Six months po ba ang visa natin? Six months?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: No, no. For visas, we give here… Sixty or 30 or 60 days right? [Do we have one of our consuls here?]

But we don’t give six months. It’s — I think it’s 30, 60 days.

Q: Pero pwede silang pumasok then lumabas then pasok ulit?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Then you have to apply again unless it’s a multiple visa. Multiple visas are not easy to go for.

Q: How do you — what is this… How do you grant multiple visas? Who are qualified? We don’t or…?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Very — usually businessmen. You can only get it after one trip to the Philippines and then second you must have a legitimate business reason or family reason if you are…

Q: Sir, of the 1.25 million Chinese tourists, you said there are problems already of those circumventing the ano, but can we — can you just give us an idea, how many of them — anong percent ‘yung ano na naging problema, naging ille — end up illegally working in our country?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: You have to ask DOLE and BI for that. I don’t have the figure.

Q: Sir, when you raised this with China, what was the response on dealing with illegal workers?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: This is — this has not been a subject of our discussion here. It’s been a discussion in Manila within the government. But we have our own problem here of Filipinos who were — they’re not in proper legal status.

Q: Ang dami din? How many?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Because they’re not registered and because we only know when they surrender or they’re caught by the authorities.

Last year, I think our figure is about more than a thousand we’re deported by the Chinese. Usually, they come here to work, to seek work, as domestic workers. They come in as tourists and they seek employment.

Q: Sir, with regard to the bilateral meeting, can we say that definitely the WPS, South China Sea, will be on the minds of the leaders and they will [have to?] discuss it? There’s no way of avoiding it?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: No, they don’t avoid this issue. No, what I’m saying is that, when the two leaders meet and in previous meetings, it is part of the general review of the relations, how things have moved on the — how the situation is on the South China Sea.

Q: And the President is expected to assert our position on…?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: I do not wish to preempt the President. I can only speak for myself.

Q: The usual line of avoiding use of force…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Well I think, you know, I leave that to President but from my past experience with him, his position is, his public position, you know that’s what he states also in his — in his discussion, you know.

Q: Sir, there are five agreements — the bilateral agreements that are supposed to…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: It’s still, up to know, as I talk to you, I found out they’re still discussing the final detail. So the final number and the final number of agreements, I think when they’re all vetted already and they’re ready for signing, you will know, because it will be in a day or two.

I can’t tell you right now. I can’t tell you more than what Assistant Secretary Montealegre already revealed.

But what I can tell you is that aside — these are intergovernmental agreements. There is the business-to-business agreements which is much more, but I can’t tell you the number.

No, I can only tell you it’s more than 10.

Q: More than 10 agreements…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: And it’s now also being vetted and there will be a signing ceremony. I don’t know if you’re…

[Are they gonna… It’s open to coverage?]

DTI is the one handling it.

Q: Does it include the third — what is this? Telco? No?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: That’s already —
that’s a done deal. It’s not involved in this one.

Q: No, there are no other ano for that?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: There is something to do with some manufacturing…

Q: That’s the private?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Private. You see, there is also a CEO forum that’s going on, that will go on tomorrow. So there are quite a number of Filipino businessmen here.

Q: How many businessmen — Filipino businessmen are expected to be here today in this forum?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Well, I can tell you the number who registered. Whether they’ll show up is another question. Almost 200 registered.

But because it’s open, so those who we’re interested can register. And the same with countries who are participating. So there’ll be a thousand. There’s like a big CEO forum going on, that will go on tomorrow.

Q: But we’re talking about…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Filipinos will be part of that CEO forum. It’s not just the Philippines.

Q: No, it’s the bilateral ano.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: The bilateral, it’s not that many. The signing? It’s — those were in advanced stages of signing deals. They are the ones.

Q: Ambassador, the Trade Secretary said over 10 billion dollars worth of deals, 20 agreements — business agreements.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: I heard the same figure but I know they’re still…

Q: [unclear]

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: I don’t know about the 10 billion. I heard… You know, that’s why I’m saying more that 10 because…

Q: More than 10 agreements? But he said, 20 agreements.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: How long ago was this?

Q: Yesterday.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Yesterday. So, he’s probably the more reliable. Because Secretary Lopez and DTI are the ones doing it. I’m more concerned with the DFA, the intergovernmental agreements.

Q: Do you have any update on the oil and gas exploration — joint, possible exploration after the last year’s MOU?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: We’re now in the stage of finalizing the terms of reference to implement the MOU. So when that’s — when that’s ready, I think the announcements will be made.

Q: Not during this period?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: I don’t think so.

Q: But will be finalized this year?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I think possibly within the… Sorry?

Q: Because the MOU was not complete yet.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Yeah. There are stages that you have to go through. But it’s moving forward, let’s put it that way. It is one of the topics in the — in the BCM. That was one of the areas of discussion.

Q: Sir, to the Filipinos, can you explain the importance of the Belt and Road forum, ’cause some are saying that you know there’s some earth — there are earthquakes in the Philippines and maybe[unclear] there and maybe do away with the China? So what do you say…?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Yeah. No, actually that’s —- that’s why I say the plans… The plane hasn’t taken off, has it?

Q: Not yet, sir.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: So, I’m still waiting for the final news. But even when — if the plan continues, the President will only be here for…

Q: Two to three days.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Yeah. He plans to go back by the 27th I think.

And that’s the plan right now. I don’t know if that would be also affected. But the point I’m making is that the Belt… The significance of the Belt and Road is that it offers a broad platform — an international platform for economic cooperation and regional connectivity.

And for the Philippines, the importance of President Duterte’s presence is that he will be able not only to network with other leaders there. Thirty-seven leaders will be around, as well as to continue the discussion with President Xi, but really to seek new economic opportunities, new markets for the Philippines.

So in the end, it is how to boost Build, Build, Build, how to boost economic development in the Philippines, and how in the end to improve the living standards of the people in the Philippines. That is the ultimate goal.

Q: Sir, the Belt and Road initiative has been in placed since 2017…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Well, the initiative was first articulated in 2013. But remember there was a period when we had a contentious relationship.

At that point, we actually — there were actually views in the Philippines as… We actually refrained from joining it. And we only signed the MOU on the Belt and Road last November.

But with the improvement of bilateral relations and since China was the proponent, the President attended the first one to have a better understanding of the Belt and Road initiative.

And that’s how we started to see that it is possible, that there are certain areas in the Belt and Road that could contribute, when there’s convergence and could be a source of synergy and could contribute to our economic development. So that’s why we continued.

But the projects that we have — it’s a little complicated. In other countries, there are projects that were designated Belt and Road projects.

In the case of the Philippines, the projects that we have, are really projects that NEDA came up with and the government came up with as part of the Build, Build, Build, the 75 flagship projects.

And then we — once these were formed, you know, we let Japan take a look, China take a look, ADB, and so they decided which was of interest, to which one — which they wanted to support.

And that’s how — in other words it was our choice but with their ODA.

Q: So how many of these projects are taken by BRI?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: No, right now — from the Chinese perspective, they view everything from a BRI perspective. From our point of view, we haven’t really…

Well, I guess you could say that the — the bridge, two bridges. Because these are grants by the Chinese. But in the sense that the whole idea of connectivity, infrastructure, in a broad sense, you could say that this is part of it.

But because we only actually signed on in November, from our point of view, we were viewing it more from bilateral relations with China and from the Philippine perspective.

So we’re entering with open eyes and it’s only what is of beneficial to us that we — you see the agreement is — it’s not an alliance, it’s an — it’s more like a loose network. Even the MOU was a non-binding.

And but we try to, you know, have this more interaction with China, with the other members and to see where it’s going and where we could benefit.

Q: Sir, some critics have questioned China-funded projects, loan agreements? What do you say to [unclear] considered it onerous?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Yeah, you see the problem I think is — it’s part of the China syndrome. You know the China allergy, anything China, they don’t want to have to do anything.

But the point I want to make is that you cannot compare the Philippines to Sri Lanka, the Maldives, or even Pakistan. The Philippines has an investment grade. You know, international community views as us credit-worthy. And that is why when we have these loans, they have no doubt that we will be able to pay.

And to say that we’re falling into a debt trap, we also have an experience already with that trap. And it was not with China, it was not with Japan, it was actually with Wall Street banks during the last years of the Marcos regime.

And we had to pay with it default. We had to pay. And so we come in with all these lessons and if you look at it, even if all the loans that China is offering materializes, it will be less than five percent of our total foreign debt.

Japan, we owe them double, it’s around nine percent. So the point I’m making is, it’s not a case of a debt trap or overreliance on China, what we have is a diversified portfolio, loans from Japan, from ADB, from World Bank and as well as from AIIB and China.

We’re trying to maximize because soon we will graduate from the ODA-qualified countries because we’re reaching the ranks of the middle-income economy, on the higher side, you know. Only the ones from the low-income are entitled to it.

So while we can still get this, we try to maximize. And as the Department of Finance like to say, we rely on 80 percent of the financing from domestic sources and only 20 percent from international sources.

So those who are saying it’s a debt trap, they cite the case of Sri Lanka and all of this, which is fine. The fear is something that we have to take into consideration.

But then we have to base it on evidence and what the overall picture is and I think we’re very far from falling into a debt trap.

Q: Sir, on the agreements, government-to-government agreement, is there a new agreement on infra that is going to be signed in this meeting? Is there something…?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Nothing — none of the specific projects are included.

Q: Nothing?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: That I know of.

Q: In this forum?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Yeah. There may be some grants that will be signed but it’s not. You’ll know soon enough.

Secretary Panelo is coming by the way. He’s arriving.

Q: He’s already coming?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Yeah, he’s coming. You’ll have him — he’ll be together with you hopefully soon.

Q: Sir one of the five agreements will be an ODA? What project does it cover?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: No, no. I don’t think it’s a specific project. It’s broad, it’s a broad…

Q: Ambassador, ‘yung POGO, is it a concern here of — kasi…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: The Chinese are concerned. I’ve had informal discussions with the Chinese about this. They’re concerned because some of their citizens are being killed, are being kidnapped and are also subject…

Q: In the Philippines?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Yes. There — some of the Chinese workers in the Philippines. Yes, yes.

And there have been reports in the Chinese media here of what they call human trafficking. Because when they are — these are young Chinese graduates, they go — they are employed, they’re told to go to the Philippines to be employed and then when they arrive, their passports are confiscated, their…

Q: So it is their own group — their own Chinese…?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: That is why it is a concern. So…

Q: It’s not Philippines, it’s also their own…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Well, the problem is, there are Filipino investors, there are also — they have been Filipino partners.

Q: [unclear]

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Exactly. So it is a concern for them and they — they at some point I think they’ll probably have to deal with it.

Q: I thought there was a report about the…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: And gambling is illegal here. It’s illegal.

Q: Parang they sent people to look at the living conditions and… Oo nga. They thought nga that the China will start tracking down the POGOs because they found out how — how the living conditions.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: I think they’re monitoring it quite closely.

Q: But it’s been a big boost to our economy.

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: I know. This is also the challenge for the Chinese, how not to have a negative impact on our economy and yet how to protect the interest of their citizens.

So it’s a — they face the same challenge too. We have our own challenge, how to preserve the jobs for the Filipinos at the same time, how to maximize the gains we have.

Okay. We covered a lot of ground.

Q: So what are they doing about it when they heard reports about — gathered [unclear] about human trafficking and…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Well, it’s in the media. I don’t really know what they’re doing but I wouldn’t rule out that they would — they’re investigating and they’re looking into it, you know.

They’re concerned. That’s all I can — I can say from discussions with Chinese officials.

Q: And what was our commitment — Philippine government’s commitment to China on addressing possible exploitation of Chinese workers in this country?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Well, actually if there is any illegal — any violation of the law and it’s reported and it’s happening.

There are law enforcement authorities, they’re trying to crack down on some of the — you know, there cases of kidnapping, there have been cases where they actually rescue or try to help them out, you know.

So, actually this is one area of cooperation. We have a police attaché in our embassy. And part of the area of cooperation is — has to do with the anti-drugs as well as cases that involves Chinese citizens in the Philippines that need help.

Q: Sino po ang nag ki-kidnap? Sila-sila rin or may syndicate sa’tin?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: So far. So far. I mean, there’ve been cases na sila-sila. Kasi ang ginagawa ano eh, pagka may utang. Pinapautang muna tapos hindi babayaran ‘yung utang and then he… Tapos tatawagan ‘yung parents dito or kaibigan dito na magbayad kayo sa bank ganun. Kaya it’s a sort of a complicated incident.

Okay?

Q: Last topic Ambassador. The Chinese mainlanders who were involved in RCBC’s — the RCBC thing, ‘di ba nawawala, dito…. Meron bang update doon?

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: No, no that one. I don’t think merong…

Q: Nandito sila…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: No. I don’t have any information to give you on that because it was not a — they certainly were aware of it, it was on their papers pero…

Q: Hindi nila mahanap dito…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: Sino in particular?

Q: ‘Yung dalawang Chinese daw na ‘yun ang mastermind ng lahat ng…

AMBASSADOR STA. ROMANA: I see. It has not reached my desk.

Okay. Thanks a lot.

— END —

SOURCE: PCOO – PND (Presidential News Desk)

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