VFA termination opens door to China â senators
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chairman of the committee on national defense and security, and Sen. Richard Gordon, chairman of the Blue Ribbon, raised the possibility of increased Chinese aggressiveness in militarizing the West Philippine Sea with 160 days more to go before the VFA abrogation becomes effective.
Geremy Pintolo/ File
VFA termination opens door to China — senators
Paolo Romero (The Philippine Star) - March 2, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — China may already be starting to take advantage of the growing security void being created by President Duterte’s termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which include infiltration and intensified intelligence gathering on the country’s defense infrastructure, senators warned yesterday.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chairman of the committee on national defense and security, and Sen. Richard Gordon, chairman of the Blue Ribbon, raised the possibility of increased Chinese aggressiveness in militarizing the West Philippine Sea (WPS) with 160 days more to go before the VFA abrogation becomes effective.

“Goodwill starts with complying with the arbitral ruling and at least refraining from further intrusions (in the WPS). Without good faith, how can there be trust?” Lacson said, referring to the 2016 ruling of the arbitral tribunal that invalidated Beijing’s claim over almost the entire South China Sea.

The senator earlier pointed out that half of the US security aid for the region went to the Philippines in recent years.

The VFA provides the legal framework on the entry of US troops in the country for joint exercises and other activities.

Gordon, whose committee is set to launch an inquiry into the suspicious entry into the country of over $180 million in cash brought in by Chinese nationals from December 2019 to February this year, expressed worry over Beijing’s moves now that the Philippines is moving out of the US security umbrella.

“I’m just thinking of the worse case. With these guys (Beijing hardliners), nothing is off the table. The only country dancing in the streets when the VFA was abrogated was China,” Gordon said.

He warned that China wants to be a superpower and having lesser US presence and influence in Southeast Asia would help it attain its “hegemonic ambitions.”

Gordon said it was no secret that China has been conducting surveillance on the country through satellites and other electronic means  and the influx of over half a million Chinese nationals —many of whom carried cash dollars—should be cause for alarm.

He did not discount the possibility that the dollars were brought in not only for money laundering purposes, but also to fund certain activities for the state such as gathering intelligence or creating a secret army of Chinese soldiers or militia that may take action upon orders from Beijing. Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the influx of cash dollars from Chinese tourists would surely attract the attention of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global watchdog for money laundering.

Drilon is convinced the huge amounts of cash brought into the country by Chinese nationals are part of a money laundering scheme of organized syndicates as he expressed fears “the Philippines is becoming a haven for money launderers.”

“We have never seen this kind of behavior (bringing in cash). They seem very confident that they will not be caught,” he told dzBB, adding the phenomenon may have something to do with the proliferation of casinos and Philippine offshore gaming operators or POGOs in the country.

Casinos are among the industries that anti-money laundering coalitions worldwide consider to be prone to money-laundering schemes.

He warned if the FATF takes punitive action, overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) would find it difficult to send their remittances due to tighter controls.

The country is heavily dependent on OFW remittances, which if reduced, would affect the economy, he said.

Sustained monitoring efforts

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Customs (BOC) is stepping up efforts to address influx of suspicious large amounts of foreign currency into the country to combat money laundering and terrorism financing.

In a statement, the bureau said it is undertaking sustained monitoring efforts as several groups of passenger-couriers declaring huge amount of foreign currency have been intercepted.

The agency added it has been working silently with the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, Congress and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies to combat illicit financial flows and to protect the interest of the general public.

“The BOC vows to continuously intensify its efforts on border protection and prevent the illegal movements of illicit money or capital to and from the Philippines,” the agency said.

In 2006, the BSP issued Circular No. 507 requiring residents or non-residents carrying more than $10,000, or their equivalent in other foreign currencies, into or out of the country to disclose the amount.

The regulator also required these individuals to inform the BOC about the source and purpose of the funds, along with their personal information.

BOC Associate Commissioner Vincent Philip Maronilla said they have identified several groups of passenger-couriers suspected of bringing in large amounts of money into the country but are still in the process of intelligence and information gathering. – With Lawrence Agcaoili, Evelyn Macairan

PANFILO LACSON VFA
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