By Chloe Mari A. Hufana

WORRIES about the influx of Chinese students into the northern Philippine province of Cagayan could be a sign of anti-Chinese sentiment amid growing tensions between the two nations in the South China Sea, according to a security expert.

“The influx is raising concerns in the Philippines because of growing Sinophobia in the Philippines caused by President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.’s excessive pro-Americanism in dealing with China in the West Philippine Sea,” Rommel C. Banlaoi, former president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, said in a Viber message.

Senate Majority Leader Emmanuel Joel J. Villanueva has sought a probe of the Chinese influx amid worries that some of the students might be spies.

“This issue does not only diminish the integrity of our education system but might also have implications for our national security,” he said in a statement.

“We need to ensure that this is not a smokescreen for more questionable Chinese citizens to enter the country, such as workers in illegal Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations,” he added.

Some lawmakers have sought to ban offshore gaming operators, which are mostly Chinese companies that hire their own nationals, given their alleged links to crimes.

Mr. Banlaoi said the Chinese population in the Philippines is small compared with other Southeast Asian countries including Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia.

He added that Thailand, an American ally like the Philippines, had at least 20,000 Chinese students in 2022.

Mr. Banlaoi attributed the growing Sinophobia in the Philippines to Western influence.

The United States and the Philippines are holding military drills in the northern province of Ilocos Norte until May 10. About 16,700 troops from both sides will be participating.

Tensions between Manila and Beijing have worsened in the past year as China’s coast guard continues to block resupply missions at Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippines grounded a World War II-era ship in 1999 to as-sert its sovereignty.

Immigration Commissioner Norman G. Tansingco on Friday said 1,516 Chinese nationals in Cagayan had been given student visas.

More than 400 Chinese nationals are physically attending schools in the province, while others are enrolled in distance learning.

Mr. Tansingco said the rise in students might be due to “post-pandemic rebound” and “aggressive marketing of schools and government agencies to boost the country’s educational tourism.”

St. Paul University Philippines, Medical Colleges of Northern Philippines, University of Cagayan Valley (UCV) and University of Saint Louis Tuguegarao, all in Cagayan, dismissed the worries as signs of Sinophobia.

“The insinuation that the presence of Chinese students in the city’s universities poses a threat to national security is not only baseless but also deeply offensive,” they said in a joint statement.

“It is a blatant display of racism and Sinophobia that has no place in our society, especially within the realm of education.”

“It is positive to promote people-to-people contacts, academic exchanges and cultural interactions as long as they remain involved in lawful activities,” Mr. Banlaoi told BusinessWorld.

The Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission last month raided a property in Bamban, Tarlac that housed almost 900 hundred allegedly trafficked workers at an illegal offshore gaming operator.

They included 371 Filipinos, 427 Chinese, 57 Vietnamese, eight Malaysians, three Taiwanese, two Indonesians and two Rwandans.