China denied on Thursday that it had threatened to retaliate against Manila should the government deport Chinese migrants found to be working illegally in the Philippines.
The statement came as President Rodrigo Duterte’s congressional allies and opponents expressed dismay at his comments earlier this week that were seen as virtually surrendering Manila’s right to expel Chinese workers.
His spokesman, Salvador Panelo, had claimed that Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua had warned him recently that China would deport Filipinos if the Duterte government expelled its citizens.
“The Chinese Embassy in the Philippines did not say that Beijing would adopt a ‘tit-for-tat’ approach,” the embassy said in a statement Thursday, emphasizing that it respected Philippine laws and Chinese nationals found to be violating them would be punished.
“China respects the laws and regulations of the Philippines regarding employment of foreign nationals in the country, and holds that Chinese nationals should not stay or work illegally in foreign countries including the Philippines,” the embassy said.
The statement said Chinese law-enforcement agencies would also continue to monitor foreign nationals working illegally in China.
The controversy arose after the Philippine Department of Public Works and Highways recently disclosed that dozens of Chinese workers were working on at least two construction projects funded by Beijing under the Filipino government’s massive infrastructure drive.
Duterte added to the debate when he said that Manila risked angering China if the government moved to expel the illegal workers.
The Philippine leader is widely seen as pro-Chinese, and has taken steps to ingratiate the country to Beijing in the face of territorial wrangling in the South China Sea.
Since becoming president three years ago, Duterte had welcomed an influx of Chinese investments and tourists, and politically veered toward closer military and diplomatic ties to Beijing, away from traditional defense ally the United States.
But some of his allies and the country’s defense establishment have cautioned against closer ties with China. Of late, there have been concerns that China was moving to gain control of a former American naval base north of Manila fronting the South China Sea.
More than 300,000 Filipinos work legally in China and Hong Kong. In the Philippines, about half of the 169,000 work permits given to foreign nationals during the past three years went to Chinese citizens, officials said.