MANILA -- Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Sunday dubbed as "preposterous" a remark by China's envoy, who raised the possibility of overseas Filipino workers being considered by Beijing as potential security threats.
Lorenzana earlier warned that Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGO) hubs that are usually run by the Chinese may be used for surveillance activity.
This prompted Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua to warn Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo that Beijing could also suspect Filipino workers of espionage.
"Nag-text si Ambassador Zhao sa'kin. Sabi niya, 'Kung kami mag-isip sa overseas workers niyo? Isipin namin na nagspa-spy sa amin?'" Panelo said.
(Ambassador Zhao texted me saying, 'What if we doubt the presence of your overseas workers? What if we think that they are also spying on us?)
"That’s the most preposterous statement I heard in a long while," Lorenzana said of Zhao's comment.
"POGO workers here are not comparable to OFWs in China," he said.
POGO workers likely came to the Philippines for a different purpose, like tourism, but eventually got visas to work in gambling hubs that are prohibited in China, Lorenzana pointed out.
He also noted that Chinese companies are mandated by Beijing to assist in intelligence collection and "it is not far-fetched that individuals likewise could be compelled to do so."
On the other hand, OFW went to China "for specific work that’s legitimate there with Chinese visas," said Lorenzana. They are also "widely dispersed, working in homes and schools away from military camps," he said.
POGO hubs, meanwhile, "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 just for work only. What I am alarmed is the potential that they could be tapped for info gathering purposes," Lorenzana said.
"That is why I support the relocation of the POGO centers to ecozones that are not proximate to military camps," he added.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, for his part, tweeted Panelo's quote relaying Zhao's remark, adding the phrase: "PRESIDENTIAL SPOKESPERSON OR CHINESE EMBASSY SPOKESMAN?"
Some of the POGO centers in the capital are located at Araneta Center in Cubao and Eastwood, which are both near Camp Aguinaldo, the general headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
The Resorts World Manila in Pasay, a popular casino in Metro Manila, is close to Villamor Airbase, the headquarters of the Philippine Air Force.
Another POGO center is located at Island Cove in Cavite, which is across the naval base of Sangley Point.