Dennis Jay Santos and Jeoffrey Maitem
Davao and Cotabato, Philippines
China has downplayed as “isolated incidents” cases of crimes involving its nationals in the Philippines, as a Senate committee launched a probe Thursday into allegations of a large-scale smuggling of foreign currencies into the Southeast Asian nation by suspected syndicates, including a Chinese group.
Beijing’s embassy in Manila said in a statement that criminal activities attributed to some of its citizens did not reflect bilateral ties with Manila, which had “maintained a good momentum.”
“Individual illegal and criminal cases involving Chinese citizens are only isolated incidents and cannot represent the whole picture of China-Philippines relations,” said the statement, released Wednesday. The embassy did not elaborate.
On Tuesday, the Department of Finance said that millions in U.S. dollars and other currencies were brought into the Philippines last year by two syndicates identified by local officials as the “Chinese” and “Rodriguez” groups.
Sen. Richard Gordon, who heads the Philippine Senate’s powerful Blue Ribbon committee, said that based on data provided by the Bureau of Customs almost 50 individuals, mostly Chinese nationals, had arrived in the Philippines since September last year, carrying with them an estimated $447 million in cash.
The money could be linked to Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) in the country, he said.
Gordon, who launched an investigation into the allegations Thursday, said the inaction of anti-money laundering authorities had paved the way for Chinese and Filipino couriers to hand-carry the money stashed in suitcases – through the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.
President Rodrigo Duterte has resisted calls to ban an influx of Chinese workers in the gaming industry, despite warnings from his own military and defense officials that Beijing could be sending spies disguised as workers.
Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, urged Gordon on Monday to share his information with the presidential palace.
“If the good senator has information on that, I think [he] should provide us with intelligence reports so that we can pursue,” Panelo told reporters.
But the lawmaker questioned why he was being asked to share his information with the office of the president.
“It’s impossible that he did not know about that. The president is the repository of information in this country. He has the most information. He can judge,” Gordon told reporters.
“This would never happen if the administration was not too soft on China. That’s one of the reasons why they are here),” he said, referring to the POGOs, where local newspapers estimate up to 150,000 Chinese nationals are employed.
Duterte has pursued cordial ties to China since he took office in 2016. He has set aside a ruling by an international court that rejected China’s claim to the entire South China Sea, and has visited Beijing several times as president.
Gordon said that the government had chosen “to turn a blind eye to the nefarious activities.”
He said that based on the report he had received, at least one Chinese individual was able to bring in U.S. dollars at least 45 times.
“That is what I call, done with impunity,” he said, adding that money laundering was a threat to national security.
“The fund could allow syndicates to thrive and perpetuate criminality,” Gordon said. “In extreme cases, it can be used to fund armies or coup d’etat that can lead to a takeover of a government.”