Filipino-Chinese businesses caught in middle of territorial feud

July 10, 2015 15:15
Edwin Tan, the owner of the Edwin's restaurant, is one of the ethnic Chinese who dominate the economy of Palawan Island in the Philippines. Photo: Bloomberg

China’s claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea are making life complicated for ethnic Chinese businessmen in countries like the Philippines that have competing claims, Bloomberg reported.

Filipino-Chinese businessmen take care to show they are on the side of the Philippines, Edwin Tan, president of the Palawan Filipino Chinese Chamber of Commerce, was quoted as saying.

Palawan Island, a tourist draw for its pristine beaches and diving, is a Philippine gateway to the South China Sea.

“The Chinese community of the Palawan chamber, they own the town,” Tan said.

“There are doubts, there’s suspicion, they might say we’re siding with the Chinese.”

As Asia’s biggest economy accelerates reclamation work on disputed reefs in the South China Sea and increases its military presence in the area, it risks inflaming historical tensions for ethnic Chinese who live and do business in the region, the report said.

Some of the most prominent businesspeople in the Philippines are ethnic Chinese.

Henry Sy, the Philippines’ richest man, was born in China, and at least seven of the 10 biggest companies on the national stock exchange are run by Filipinos of Chinese descent.

Philippine census data does not provide a breakdown by ethnicity, but some reports say the proportion of the population with pure Chinese ancestry is about 1 percent.

China was the Philippines’ second-largest trading partner in 2014, Philippine Statistics Authority figures show.

Resentment has flared periodically for decades over the disproportionate influence that ethnic Chinese can have over the economies of Southeast Asia, leading to tensions with the broader population.

There have been times when Chinese people were targeted in Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam over relatively minor incidents, such as traffic accidents or brawls.

Most recently, deadly riots erupted in Vietnam after China towed an oil rig into waters claimed by the two countries in May last year.

The protesters targeted factories with Chinese names, including those operated by companies from Singapore and Taiwan, forcing some of them to shut temporarily.

Palawan residents say some Chinese fishermen are spies sent to gather information and that China’s territorial claims have emboldened its fishermen to hunt endangered turtles and argue the sea is their territory.

“We’re starting to hate them,” Alex Marcaida, 52, a division head at the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, tasked with enforcing the law against the poachers, was quoted as saying.

In the past, members of the Palawan Filipino Chinese Chamber of Commerce volunteered to act as interpreters for Chinese citizens facing illegal fishing charges in Philippine courts, businessman Antonio Ong, who came to the Philippines from Xiamen, Fujian province, four decades ago, told Bloomberg.

“Now we hesitate to help because the locals might mistake us as supporters of the Chinese government,” Ong, 74, said.

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