Manila considering ending visa privilege for Chinese nationals

MANILA is considering ending a program giving Chinese nationals a visa upon arrival in Manila due to health and human trafficking concerns, according to a Philippine envoy.

“The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is against this particular scheme,” Assistant Secretary Ma. Theresa P. Lazaro told senators at a  hearing on Thursday. “We want to terminate it as soon as the appropriate time comes.”

The government suspended the automatic visa program in January last year amid a coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate foreign relations committee is investigating the automatic visa policy after reports that some Chinese were being trafficked to work at online gaming companies in the Philippines.

Several Immigration officials had also been suspended after they were found to have profited from the scheme.

The Philippines last month filed a diplomatic protest against China after it passed a law allowing its coast guard to fire at foreign vessels in the South China Sea.

The presidential palace has said the use of force is prohibited under international law.

Presidential spokesman Harry L. Roque had said President Rodrigo R. Duterte wanted claimants to disputed areas in the South China Sea to finish a proposed code of conduct and adhere to it to ease tensions.

The Philippine Coast Guard would probably request for more surveillance ships, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Alexei B. Nograles told a televised news briefing on Thursday.

Senator Risa N. Hontiveros-Baraquel, one of the lawmakers who exposed the corruption at the country’s airports, said she would seek to end the visa upon arrival program after her women committee finishes its own separate probe.

“I will recommend that we scrap the visa upon arrival program so Chinese nationals won’t get special treatment,” she said in Filipino at Thursday’s hearing. She also said “undesirable aliens” had managed to come in through the program.

The visa upon arrival program started in 2017 under a circular issued by then Justice Secretary Vitaliano N. Aguirre.

Immigration Commissioner Jaime H. Morente said the circular, issued in consultation with former Tourism Secretary Wanda T. Teo, was meant to promote local tourism. Filipinos don’t enjoy the privilege in China.

Ms. Baraquel has filed a resolution seeking to ban offshore gambling operators in the Philippines after the companies — most of them Chinese-owned and employ their own citizens — allegedly failed to pay taxes.

The lawmaker said President Rodrigo R. Duterte, who has sought closer trade and investment ties with China, should think of ways to address joblessness instead of allowing the gaming operators to reopen.

Ms. Baraquel earlier said about 70,000 Chinese nationals were illegally employed by these gaming companies.

Meanwhile, the Philippine military will buy 15 more Black Hawk helicopters — lower than the original target of 55 units — to help patrol its islands amid a coronavirus pandemic, according to the presidential palace.

“That number has been managed and reduced to 15 owing to the challenges brought by the pandemic,” Mr. Nograles told an online news briefing.

The 15 units were only “indicative” and could change depending on the availability of funds, he added.

The helicopters would address the deficiency in heavy-lift helicopters, Mr. Nograles said, noting that the military had required 76 units.

Black Hawk helicopters, which are considered as a troop carrier and logistical support aircraft, are made by American manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., according to the ArmyTechnology website.

The helicopter can also be used in carrying out executive transport missions such as medical evacuation, command and control, search and rescue, armed escort, and electronic warfare, it said.

Mr. Duterte ordered the decommissioning of all Huey helicopters in the Philippine Air Force inventory due to their frequent involvement in deadly crashes, he said.

An Air Force Huey crashed last month in the mountains of Bukidnon province, killing five soldiers and two members of the local militia.

“It was the fourth such crash since July and the President wants to end all these tragic deaths,” Mr. Nograles said. “Our servicemen and their families deserve better.”

He said a supply agreement was expected to be signed before Mr. Duterte’s six-year term ends in 2022.

The military in November took delivery of 16 Black Hawk helicopters from a Polish unit of US defense and security company Lockheed Martin.

The choppers would be used to transport military personnel and cargo, and for emergency evacuation and disaster relief operations and aerial reconnaissance. — Charmaine A. Tadalan and Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

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