The Manila Times/ Manila
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana yesterday rebuked Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua for accusing Filipino working in China as spies, saying the allegation was “most preposterous.”
The ambassador’s remark came after Lorenzana flagged concerns over the establishment of Chinese-operated Philippine offshore gaming operation (POGO) centres situated near military and police camps, especially near Camp Aguinaldo, the main headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines located in Quezon City, among other places.
POGO centres can also be found near Camp Crame (Philippine National Police headquarters, also in Quezon City), Camp Bagong Diwa (National Capital Region Police Office headquarters in Taguig City), Fort Bonifacio (Philippine Army headquarters in Makati City), Villamor Air Base (Philippine Air Force headquarters in Pasay City) and Naval Station Jose Andrada (Philippine Navy headquarters in Manila).
The Defence chief said POGO centres could easily be made to engage in espionage conducted by Chinese manning such centres.
Malacanang spokesman Salvador Panelo over the weekend said Zhao had sent him a text message asking what if they were also suspecting overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in China of spying for the Philippines.
Panelo added that Manila might have been “too security-conscious” about the presence of POGOs near key military and police headquarters in Metro Manila, the country’s premier region.
Zhao’s statement, however, did not sit well with Lorenzana.
“That’s the most preposterous statement I heard in a long while,” the Defence chief said in a statement.
For him, Lorenzana said, workers in POGO centres in the country were not in any way comparable to the OFWs working in China, noting that Chinese workers came to the Philippines “for a different purpose,” such as tourism, and eventually getting their work visas when POGO centres — which are prohibited in China — were built.
“Knowing that Chinese companies are mandated by the Chinese government to assist in intel (intelligence) collection for their government, it is not far-fetched that individuals likewise could be compelled to do so,” he explained.
According to the Defence secretary, the OFWs currently in China were legitimate, equipped with Chinese working visas, saying it was a situation comparable with Chinese workers in Manila for construction projects “mutually agreed upon by both countries.”
The Filipino workers in China are also “widely dispersed,” meaning they are working in homes and schools away from camps of Beijing’s military and even police.
Lorenzana clarified that he had nothing against POGO centres operating near military and police bases, citing it could have just been “coincidental.”
“The POGO centres… are very near military camps and naval bases. It could be just coincidental because these were the only facilities offered for POGO operations and I believe that the POGO workers are here only just for work only,” he said.
“What I am alarmed at is the potential that they could be tapped for information-gathering purposes,” Lorenzana added.
Panelo yesterday downplayed Zhao’s recent pronouncement that the OFWs working in China are spies.
“That was just Ambassador Zhao’s opinion. Perhaps in response to the statement of the Secretary of National Defence. That’s why he was expressing an opinion and Secretary Lorenzana was also expressing an opinion,” he said in a radio interview.
But when asked whether Palace would be in favour of POGO centres being contained in hubs, Panelo replied that it was alright as long as the rights of Chinese workers were not violated.
“As long as it will not infringe on or violate the rights of Chinese workers, if it will help in their protection, we will not object to that,” he said.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, however, slammed Panelo’s downplaying and questioned whether he was really speaking for President Rodrigo Duterte or for China.
Reacting to Panelo’s statement wherein he shared with the media Zhao’s text to him, Lacson on Twitter said, “Ambassador Zhao sent me a text. He said, ‘What if we also think that your overseas workers are also spying on us. What can you say about that?’ Presidential spokesperson or Chinese Embassy spokesman?”
“What I was pointing out in my tweet is not the issue of whether or not there is logic in the Chinese ambassador’s statement,” according to the senator
Lacson, the chairman of the Senate Committee on National Defence and Security, also questioned why Panelo, whose salary and other miscellaneous expenses are being paid out of people’s taxes, is taking the embassy spokesman’s job.
“Has the presidential spokesman switched from Chinese embassy defence counsel to spokesman?” he said.
Lacson added, “The thing is, the Chinese embassy has its own spokesman who should speak on their behalf because that’s his job.”
Reacting to the senator’s statements, Panelo also yesterday said,“There is nothing wrong with sharing the text message of Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua as the same was made to provide a context and response to a query from a media reporter on the sentiments and alarm of Secretary of National Defence Delfin Lorenzana on the subject.”
In a statement, he added, “I am the (spokesman for) the President and of the entire Filipino people, including the (OFWs). As the spokesman, it is my duty to be transparent to the media and ultimately the public in sharing information, which is germane to a national issue or concern, in consideration of the latter’s constitutional right to information.”
“If Senator Lacson is not concerned with the OFWs, the Office of the President is,” Panelo said.
Despite Zhao’s pronouncement, Panelo assured that President Duterte would raise the issue of the arbitral ruling on his visit to China by the end of August.
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