The South China Sea’s Forgotten Front: Mitigating Sinophobia for Philippine Stability and Security

Geopolitical tensions with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have led to heightened scrutiny of PRC nationals and individuals of Chinese descent in the Philippines and around the world. In April of this year, the Philippine government began investigating an alleged influx of 4,600 PRC nationals studying in Cagayan, suspecting some might be spies.

The Embassy of China in the Philippines labeled the accusations as a “malicious” attempt by Filipino politicians to incite hatred against China. Amid similar criticisms from Chinese Filipino leaders, Representative Ace Barbers defended the probe, asserting that “those who mention Sinophobia and racism are the ones with the tendency to commit those things.”

Barbers’ sentiments, echoed by lawmakers and social media users across the country, critically underestimate the gravity of Sinophobia in the Philippines and its social, economic, and political costs. This miscalculation is evident in the rhetoric of hawkish Philippine politicians and a recently exposed U.S. campaign that spread suspicion of China’s Covid-19 vaccines, test kits, and medical equipment on Philippine social media. The intended strategic benefits are vastly overshadowed by Sinophobia’s counterproductive impact on the Philippines and its allies.

Sinophobia should not be disregarded as a strategic label that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses to discredit critics of its actions. The Philippines must address Sinophobia to uphold its internal cohesion and its preferences in international relations.

The Consequences of Philippine Sinophobia

Sinophobia harms not only PRC nationals and Filipinos of Chinese descent but also Philippine national interests. First, Sinophobic language undermines progress in diplomacy, including hopes for the Philippines and China to manage differences through “friendly talks.” Expectations for diplomats to address allegations of discrimination divert attention away from geopolitical issues and polarize the negotiating table. Anti-Chinese sentiment may also lead civilian actors to incite violence, causing diplomatic catastrophes. In May, after China warned it might detain foreign nationals for “trespassing” in disputed areas of the South China Sea, Filipino fishermen threatened to kidnap PRC nationals in retaliation.

Second, Sinophobia can harm Philippine economic interests. China remains the Philippines’ largest trading partner, largest source of imports, largest export destination, and third largest source of foreign investment. Though the Philippine government intends to keep economic matters separate from its maritime disputes, Sinophobia may create tension in the people-to-people relations that drive trade, investment, tourism, and education. Trade between the Philippines and China already declined by 10.31 percent in the first four months of 2024 compared to the previous year. This decline may worsen if Chinese investors, tourists, or students—of all nationalities—seek alternatives due to a perceived hostile environment in the Philippines.

Third, Sinophobia undermines the Philippines’ commitment to an inclusive society that has been home for generations of Chinese immigrants from as early as the sixteenth century. The recent controversy surrounding Philippine mayor Alice Guo, who lawmakers suspect of lying about her parents’ nationalities, being ineligible to hold public office in the Philippines, and possibly being an “asset for Beijing,'' has reinforced xenophobic stereotypes of Chinese immigrants as threats to locals. The conflation of these suspicions stokes mistrust for other democratically elected Chinese Filipino leaders and distracts from addressing systemic issues in campaign transparency and election interference. Seeing heightened scrutiny of their loyalty, the Chinese Filipino community may also hesitate to help serve as “bridges” between the Philippines and China, as urged by Senate President Francis Escudero.

Fourth, Sinophobia threatens the Philippines’ internal stability, paradoxically benefiting Beijing. If the Philippine government does not proactively mitigate the othering and alienation of Chinese Filipinos, Beijing may become more capable of using misinformation, censorship, and content manipulation to unite these communities in support of the CCP and its goals. Racial divisions would weaken the Philippines’ ability to respond to external threats and contingencies in the South China Sea and Taiwan, undermining its position as a stable partner in military alliances, particularly with the United States.

The Toolkit to Addressing Sinophobia

Sinophobia is not a unique problem of the Philippines, nor a new one. Chinese individuals in Southeast Asia have faced discrimination for centuries, particularly for their perceived economic dominance throughout the region’s colonial and wartime history. More recently, the involvement of PRC nationals in crimes related to scam centers across the region have reinforced negative stereotypes. Yet historically, Filipino politicians and political parties generally avoided capitalizing on negative references to Chinese ethnicity, forewarned by deadly racial riots in neighboring Malaysia in 1969 and Indonesia in 1998. Thus, the current wave of Sinophobia in the Philippines, seeing politicizing and caricaturing ties to the PRC, raises new risks and requires new mitigation strategies.

Fortunately, leaders can play an impactful role in disentangling the Philippines’ rivalry with the PRC from discrimination against Chinese people. During a more Beijing-friendly administration, then-president Rodrigo Duterte called for Filipinos to stop coronavirus-related xenophobia and consistently emphasized the strong points of the Philippines’ relationship with China. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have gone as far to say that Duterte’s framing of China may have contributed to generally positive views of Chinese Filipinos even amid heightened conflict in the South China Sea.

Growing public support for military action against Beijing must not lead to further discrimination against Chinese individuals. The first step to addressing Sinophobia in the Philippines is to develop a consistent stance against anti-Chinese discrimination that is not conditioned on geopolitical relations with Beijing.

The second step is to improve mechanisms to track and report on anti-Chinese discrimination. Helpful examples can be found in the United States and Australia, where government-supported grassroots organizations have played a primary role in gathering data and raising awareness of the issue. The Philippines should support similar efforts to track cases of Sinophobia, helping to shift the conversation from largely anecdotal concerns to resolving them with data-driven and targeted solutions.

Additionally, the government should work with these organizations to collaborate on a standardized working definition of Sinophobia. This would involve illustrative examples of Sinophobia contextualized to the Philippines, as well as clarification on the language used to distinguish individuals of Chinese ethnicity or heritage, PRC nationals, and the PRC government, as media organizations in New Zealand and government agencies in the United States have begun including in official style guides. A standard definition would improve the accuracy of reporting on Sinophobia, foster norms against publicly shared discrimination, and address concerns of China’s weaponization of the term.

The third step is to increase engagement with Chinese communities in the Philippines. Again, this starts with language. Greater nuance to describe the diversity of Hokkien, Cantonese, Taishanese, Teochew, Hakka, Macanese, Hong Konger, Taiwanese, and Mainlander communities in the Philippines reduces the risk that the Chinese identity is caricatured and vilified by the public, while mitigating the CCP’s attempts to homogenize or recruit “its” diaspora. Recognizing such linguistic diversity, the Philippines should also support a diverse Chinese-language information environment to better engage with these communities, as a 2022 Wilson Center report recommends. By strengthening Chinese Filipino civil society and learning from its advocacy, the Philippines can foster social cohesion and strengthen its own national identity.

Finally, the Philippines must put an end to ill-founded or prematurely-evidenced smear campaigns of PRC nationals and Filipinos of Chinese descent. To better address concerns of espionage, the Philippines should work with other affected governments to share best practices on singling out China’s malign actors. This may include exchanging information about known cases and associates of intellectual property theft, commercial espionage, and election interference, as well as collaboratively updating the list of what can be considered as “covert, coercive, or corrupting.”

On the frontlines of geopolitical conflict with China, the Philippines has an opportunity to demonstrate how nations can compete without marginalizing a linguistically, culturally, and politically diverse national population of 1.4 billion people and a diaspora of over 60 million. Discrimination in the name of national security undermines the country’s diplomatic ability, economic stability, and collective identity—the very strengths of nationhood worth securing. 

Tappy Lung is a former research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Tappy Lung

Former Research Intern, Southeast Asia Program