After a Chinese diplomat said that Filipino workers in China could be spies, a bishop called the accusation “impossible, unbelievable, and unfounded.”

Zhao Jianhua, Beijing’s ambassador to Manila, made his comments on Sunday after Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana raised concerns that Chinese-run gambling parlors near military bases in the island nation could be used for spying.

Bishop Ruperto Santos of Balanga, the head of the bishops’ conference migration commission, said on Monday that no overseas Filipino workers “have been suspected, accused of spying.”

The Philippine Statistics Authority estimates the number of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who worked abroad at any time during the period April to September 2018 was estimated to be 2.3 million, although many experts say the true number is probably much higher.

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It is one of the largest diaspora communities in the world, and the government has several programs to help their citizens abroad, who often work in substandard conditions.

There are nearly 200,000 OFWs in China, although over 90 percent of them live in Hong Kong.

“They [Filipino workers] are much sought after because they are very committed, faithful with their duties, and God-fearing people,” Santos told CBCPNews, the official news service of the country’s bishops’ conference.

“It is a well-accepted reality abroad that they look for greener pastures for the love of their families so as to give them a better and brighter future,” the bishop said.

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Lorenzana called the Chinese ambassador’s claim “preposterous,” and said there was no comparison to Filipinos in China on contract work, and Chinese nationals working in casinos near military bases.

“The OFWs go to China for specific work that’s legitimate there with Chinese visas. They are more like Chinese nationals working in construction projects here in the Philippines, as mutually agreed upon by both countries,” the defense minister said in a statement.

There are around 138,000 Chinese workers in the gambling operations, many of whom arrived in the country illegally and then had their immigration status regularized.

The dispute has been downplayed by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who since the beginning of his term has been trying to pivot the island nation from its traditional alliance with the United States to stronger ties with China.

“The President and I were talking about it yesterday and he was saying that, ‘You know, you don’t even have to be near any military camp if you want to gather intelligence,'” said presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, according to ABS-CBN News.

“He said that considering the high tech now, even if they are far away from China, if they want to spy on us, they can. In fact, all countries, as he correctly said, are spying on each other. It’s only natural,” Panelo added.

Despite Duterte’s pro-China stance, the Beijing government has done little to alleviate the ambivalence of the military establishment of the Philippines, with which China has territorial disputes.

The Philippine foreign ministry has filed official diplomatic protests for China’s “trespassing” after the superpower sent warships to the Philippines southern Sibutu Strait in July and again earlier this month.

Panelo said it was an “issue” for Duterte, and the president would speak to his Chinese counterpart about it when visiting China at the end of the month.

“I feel that since we’re friends, any issue can be discussed and threshed out,” the presidential spokesman said.

Duterte is also expected to discuss the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which led to a heated standoff in 2012. China refused to honor an agreement to withdraw from the area, causing continuing anger in the Philippines.

The bishops of the Philippines have complained about Duterte’s cozy relationship with China, and the diplomatic protest was lodged over the infringement of the country’s territorial waters.

“Finally, our government is taking action against the Great Bully of Asia,” Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon said. “It is time that the authorities of our country do something concrete to protect our land being slowly claimed by tyrants.”

The bishop said the diplomatic protest would “set an example for other Asian countries who have similar complaints against China.”

“A moral force buoyed by international law and the sympathy of our neighbors and allies can make us win against China without engaging in bloody warfare,” he added.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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