Seeing China reds under the beds in the Philippines

MANILA – As tensions swirl and twirl over territories at sea, Philippine authorities are shifting their gaze to perceived Chinese influence operations aimed at penetrating and surveilling crucial installments and facilities on Philippine soil.

Legislators from northern Philippine provinces have recently raised alarm bells over the sudden large influx of Chinese students into Cagayan, which has been ruled by an openly pro-Beijing governor in recent years.

Meanwhile, the curious case of Alice Guo, a newly-elected mayor in a small town close to the Clark Air Base and other vital military facilities, has triggered official fears of possible Chinese “sleeper cell” agents lodged at or near various strategic locations across the country. 

Adding to the paranoia and fear, top Philippine authorities are now openly advocating for the expulsion of Chinese diplomats allegedly involved in influence operations on Philippine soil, which have reportedly targeted no less than a top Philippine admiral.

The upshot is an alarming and rapid deterioration in bilateral diplomatic relations just as the two sides sleepwalk toward a potential armed conflict in the South China Sea, a clash that could quickly draw the US and its allies into the fray.

Concerns over China’s influence operations in the Philippines were first raised when Chinese online gaming sites, officially known as Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGOs), mushroomed near strategic facilities across Metro-Manila under the pro-Beijing Rodrigo Duterte presidency.

As many 130,000 Chinese workers and online casino operators clustered around various vital Philippine bases, including Camp Aguinaldo, which hosts the Philippine Army and the National Defense Department’s offices, the Philippine National Police headquarters at Camp Crame and the Philippine Air Force and Navy headquarters.

Then-national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon warned at the time that a large number of Chinese citizens, many of whom were reputedly “undocumented” or entered the country under “false documentation”, posed a national security threat.

“You’d also start getting worried when a whole building, condominium, tower is occupied by only one nationality where you would not be able to guard all their activities…Some unwelcome activities could transpire there so we need to prevent those,” the Philippine national security chief warned in 2019.

“You will see something like a rotation of every eight hours of people going in and out [of buildings in POGO areas] then you would begin to wonder what they are doing,” he added, raising alarm bells over the opaque nature of the Chinese online casinos.

An aerial photo depicting the earlier location of Chinese-run POGOs and the Philippine military’s headquarters. Source: Defense Forum

Then-Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana went as far as to openly advocate for relocating all the Chinese online casinos into isolated, “self-contained hubs” located far away from vital national security facilities.

“[I]t’s very easy for all these [Chinese] people to perhaps shift their activities to spying…They are near [our military facilities],” the then-defense chief warned at the time.

With the POGOs generating an estimated US$4.1 billion between 2016 and 2019, the Duterte administration resisted calls for shuttering or relocating the Chinese gambling dens.

Interestingly, the pro-Beijing Duterte even resisted pressure to close the POGOs from China’s leadership, which vehemently opposed the proliferation of online casinos on concerns they were often fronts for criminal activities targeting the mainland and beyond. 

Fast forward to the present, the case of Bamban Mayor Alice Guo has triggered a new round of panic over potential Chinese sleeper agents.

The small-town mayor struggled during a recent Senate hearing to provide even basic documents including her birth certificate, education degrees and any concrete proof of being raised in the Philippines.

She has been accused of involvement with illegal Chinese casino activity, including association with the Hong Sheng Gaming Technology company, which was raided on suspicion of illegal operations in February 2023 and under a new name in March 2024. Guo has denied the allegations.

“She lied. There were several questions where she lied. The very stark and shocking example was the fact that she denied having a connection with Hong Sheng when it was already indicated in the document from the municipal government that she is the current head,” claimed Senator Risa Hontiveros, who led the hearing on Guo’s sensational case.

“It catches one’s attention especially because based on our research, there is a similar modus operandi wherein foreigners enter into certain countries. Eventually, they pretend to be locals and then do various tasks — some of which are not desirable,” the senator said, implying that Guo may be part of a Chinese influence operation.

Meanwhile, Philippine authorities are also investigating the fast rise in the number of Chinese students in Cagayan, which similar to Guo’s town of Bamban also hosts vital military facilities. 

According to authorities, there are over 4,000 Chinese students at universities in Cagayan province, an unusually high number given the relatively small size of urban centers and educational institutions in the northern province situated near Taiwan.

Joseph Lara, a Cagayan representative, and Faustino Dy V, a representative from Isabela province which also hosts Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) military sites used by US forces, co-authored a resolution earlier this year that underscored “an alarming increase in the number of Chinese citizens coming into the province of Cagayan as students enrolled in universities.”

As the paranoia spreads, there is also growing scrutiny of Filipino individuals, especially military personnel, who were educated in China.

In particular, alarm bells were set off when China claimed that it had a recording of a supposed special arrangement over disputed land features in the South China Sea with Vice-Admiral Alberto Carlos.

He had earlier attended a program under China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy and is the top Philippine naval commander overseeing the Philippines’ western islands and occupied features in the South China Sea. 

Vice-Admiral Alberto Carlos trained in China. Image: WESCOM

Philippine authorities have not only rejected China’s claims of a secret deal, including transcripts of its supposed exchanges with the Philippine admiral but have also openly called for the expulsion of Chinese diplomats engaged in alleged illegal activities in supposed violation of both domestic and international law.

“Those individuals in the Chinese Embassy responsible for violating Philippine laws and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and those responsible for these malign influence and interference operations must be removed from the country immediately,” Philippine National Security Adviser Secretary Eduardo Ano said in a provocative statement last week. 

“Without a doubt, these are serious breaches of the basic norms of international relations and diplomacy by the embassy,” he said, citing the Philippines’ Anti-Wire Tapping Act against China’s alleged taping of confidential exchanges with a top Philippine naval official.

On May 15, Teodoro said those responsible for recording the alleged conversation should be expelled from the Philippines as their alleged actions would breach the local wiretapping law.

For his part, Philippine Defense Secretary Teodoro has endorsed the expulsion of Chinese diplomats involved in wiretapping Philippine officials and disinformation activities. “We must find out who is responsible for this and remove them from the Republic of the Philippines,” he said in Filipino.

By all indications, Philippine-China relations are reaching a new and dangerous nadir, one which could trigger tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and exacerbate risks of miscalculation and potential deadly clashes in the South China Sea.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on X at @Richeydarian

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