Chito Sta. Romana in his peers' words: 'True patriot, China expert, good man'

Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 29 2022 05:02 PM

Photo of Ambassador Jose Sta. Romana from DFA-Beijing. Department of Foreign Affiars
Photo of Ambassador Jose Sta. Romana from DFA-Beijing. Department of Foreign Affiars

MANILA — Ambassador Jose Santiago "Chito" Sta. Romana was a "true patriot" who helped Manila forge stronger ties with Beijing despite the West Philippine Sea dispute, colleagues and friends said on Friday as they paid tribute to the late diplomat. 

Sta. Romana, 74, died last April 18 while in quarantine in eastern China's Anhui province before he was set to return to Beijing after a dialogue with Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. 

Loscin said he and and his Chinese counterpart trusted only Sta. Romana to be their "messenger." Only the 3 of them would "most of the time" attend private meetings that preceded China-Philippine talks. 

"He died in the line of duty like a soldier, never asking why, never failing to give his best to the day that he would die," Locsin said of Sta. Romana in a necrological service organized by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). 

"I cannot imagine working on China without him. In the time remaining to me, I’ll try to live as good and useful a life as yours... You’re just a year older. And yet you lived, you endured, and dared to do much more than I ever could," added the secretary. 


Born in Manila in 1948, Sta. Romana was a student leader at the De La Salle University and active in protests against the regime of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. His contemporaries included Atenean activist Edgar “Edjop” Jopson. 

When Marcos Sr. imposed martial law in 1972, Sta. Romana was visiting China and was listed among thousands to be arrested for alleged subversion, preventing him from coming home. 

He spent the next 5 decades in China, where he studied Mandarin and later served as Beijing bureau chief of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) News. 

Retired CNN-Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz, who was stranded in China with Sta. Romana and then-fellow student leader Eric Baculinao, said they "bonded like brothers" as they coped with homesickness. 

"We kept telling each other, 'we'll outlive the dictator.' And we did," FlorCruz told ANC.

"It was not easy along the way, but I think also that made Chito like a pearl who came out of the shell. All through hardship, trials, Chito came out the best that we could hope for as our top diplomat in Beijing."


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President Rodrigo Duterte, who pursued investments and aid from China, appointed Sta. Romana as envoy in December 2016, just months after the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration junked the economic giant's historic claims to the waterway. 

Sta. Romana is "the foremost expert on the country and its people, the only one to trust in dealing with the new China that he knew from its birth," said Locsin. 
The late ambassador "made sure that forging closer relations with China despite our differences was in our national interest and not at the expense of our red lines," said Neal Imperial, DFA Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs. 

Aside from knowing China "inside out", Sta. Romana's "even-keeled personality" also helped steer relations with China "along a calm course," said his friend FlorCruz. 

"Since our student activist days, our slogan has been ‘serve the people.’ And I think Chito, our ambassador, did that even in his last days... Chito did the impossible: which is to keep the relations on a healthy course, without giving up our national interest," he said. 

"Ambassador Chito has served the nation well… Not only has the nation lost a true China expert, but it has also lost a true patriot," added Philippine Ambassador to Kenya Marie Charlotte Tang, who has known Sta. Romana for 3 decades. 

On behalf of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations, former Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan III urged the President to award Sta. Romana the Order of Sikatuna with the rank of Datu "for having rendered exceptional and meritorious services for the republic." 

"Truly, Chito was the candle that burned itself to give life to others," said Teresita Ang-See, former president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies. 


Aside from fostering ties with China, Sta. Romana was also the "kindest and gentlest mentor" to many diplomats, said Renita Rodriguez, consul general of the Philippine Embassy in London. 

"He respected us and our work, he treated us as his equals, he asked for our views on issues and listened to us without judgement, no reproach. He only had kind words for everybody. He was larger than life," she said. 
"In Amba. Chito, we found a leader who was worthy to emulate. He was humility, graciousness, generosity, and integrity personified," added Dino Oblena, consul general of the Philippine Embassy in Beijing. 

For FlorCruz, Sta. Romana "will always be bigger than the sum of his accomplishments and gifts."

The late ambassador was "curious about everything, including even entertainment news." He was "not a good singer", but loved singing. He was a "loving husband and a very caring father" to 2 sons, said his friend of 50 years. 
"He was simply, a good man, a good man loyal to his country, his people, his family, and to his friends," FlorCruz said of Sta. Romana. 


Sta. Romana's son Christopher said his father was recently asked by the College Editors Guild of the Philippines about which achievement made him most proud. 

According to his son, Sta. Romana replied 3 days before his death that he was proudest playing "a frontline role in building a bridge of friendship and cooperation between the Filipino and Chinese people that transcended any differences and contributed to regional stability and prosperity."

The ambassador added, "After all, what is diplomacy if not to serve the people and promote the country’s interest?" 

But Beijing continues to ignore the 2016 international tribunal in the final year of Duterte's term in office. 

In the latest spat in March, the Philippine Coast Guard accused its Chinese counterpart of steering one of its ships within meters of a Filipino patrol vessel near the contested Scarborough Shoal. That came just weeks after Manila confronted Beijing's ambassador over a Chinese navy ship "lingering" in Philippine waters. 

Sta. Romana's legacy is "not really to solve everything," said FlorCruz. 

"His legacy is to give peace a chance, to give understanding a chance. And you do it day after day, patiently, as Chito has done the past 6 years for our country," he added.

— With reports from Agence France-Presse

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