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Philippine visa scheme sparks fears of Chinese students acting as ‘agents of state’

Analysts say the number of student visas granted to Chinese nationals is a source of concern as some of them could be acting as “agents of the state” against the interests of the Philippines.

Robert Ace Barbers, the representative of Surigao del Norte’s 2nd District, was alarmed by the report’s findings, given the simmering tensions in the South China Sea.

“Of course, we want tourists to come … we want them to invest here and we also want them to study here. But now that there seems to be a problem that we’re involved in as far as the West Philippine Sea is concerned. I think the number of Chinese students is quite alarming,” Barbers said in a television interview on Tuesday.

Barbers was referring to Manila’s term for the section of the South China Sea that defined its maritime territory and included its exclusive economic zone.

Tensions have spiked in the disputed waters in recent months with several clashes reported, including ship collisions and the use of water cannons by the Chinese coastguard against Philippine vessels.

Signed by former President Joseph Estrada in 2000, Executive Order No. 285 allows the Bureau of Immigration to grant the conversion of tourist visas into student visas subject to certain conditions. Manila’s policy then was to “promote the Philippines as a centre for education in the Asia-Pacific Region by encouraging foreign students to study in the country”.

But Barbers argued that such powers should be reserved only for the Department of Foreign Affairs, which could assess the eligibility of applicants under the scheme.

“This arbitrary power to convert visas is the worst legalised scheme that can be used by unscrupulous personnel for monetary gain,” Barbers said in a separate statement on Monday.