Chito Sta Romana, The Bridge Over Troubled Waters
In 2012, a group of Filipino scholars studying in China wanted to establish the Philippines-China Friendship Club. While some advised against the timing, then Professor Chito, with his calming and reassuring voice reminded the founders: “Friendship is more valuable in times of difficulty.” His advice: While being sensitive to the political complexities of the moment, strive to excel in your chosen careers while making friends with the Chinese.
The club has since expanded to assisting our OFWs in China, with whom Ambassador Chito is dearly referred to as the “People’s Ambassador” for his open-door policy of the Philippine embassy to assist those in need.
He seemed to have boundless energy unusual for his age. When KZ Tandingan performed in China, the camera panned to an old man in a suit beside a crowd of 20-somethings, equally engrossed and proud as KZ sang “Anak” in Tagalog and Chinese. During the five days international expo (CIIE) held in Shanghai, he attended every event to promote the Philippines. In the DTI “Trabaho Negosyo Kabuhayan” program held in Shanghai, he stayed for several hours after the program to talk with the OFWs.
Flags at Oishi’s factories in China are at half-mast in honor of Ambassador Chito. “My father (Special Envoy to China Carlos Chan) and our family saw firsthand, behind Ambassador’s solid credibility, strong sense of objectivity, and his ability to forge understanding is his true kindness,” shared Larry Chan. In one of the international events, the ambassador weaved himself through the crowds to say hello to the small clusters of OFWs at the back,” remembers Caroline Ong, an OFW in China.
His calming message, simple yet full of wisdom, disarmed even the harshest critics. During the times when some critics were egging President Duterte to take a harder line against China, Chito’s wisdom shone through again, when he reminded the public that “diplomacy is war without bloodshed.”
In his less than six years as ambassador, he not only helped the country avoid bloodshed, but contributed to the country’s recovery and development, and to a larger extent — regional peace.
Chito helped resolve many issues, and was a wise, unassuming and gentle adviser, calming the waters roiled by the hot heads. His work helped secure the much-needed weapons donations from China that saved us from becoming an Islamic State-torn country during the Marawi siege when some countries tried to block arms we needed — the support that allowed the resolution of the Marawi Crisis in eight months, avoiding the decades of destruction experienced by other countries. He helped shepherd Covid and calamities assistance, billions of investments for Philippine development, and friendships to grow. He was the bridge over troubled waters, shared Chinese-Filipino community leader George Siy.
Appointing Ambassador Chito was one of President Duterte’s lasting legacies. In the ambassador we found someone who was not only fluent in Mandarin, but who deeply understood the cultural nuances of the Philippines and China, and also the other countries that are linked to the Philippine national interest.
Eric Baculinao, long-time friend who also lived with Chito during their exile in China, summed it succinctly:
“Looking back, exile was forced on us, but we also turned it into something positive — a rare opportunity to examine in-depth China’s unique development model. It taught us that theoretical studies must help transform the world and benefit the people… this realization paved the way for Chito to specialize in China and eventually build, through sustained and painstaking efforts, the expertise for a future successful ambassadorship.
“Chito passed away while on duty as our hardworking ambassador. He helped rebuild the ties of friendship and cooperation between the Filipino and Chinese while smoothing out disputes, bringing significant benefits to our country, averting a potential crisis, and contributing to the relative peace and stability in our region, in contrast with the happenings elsewhere in the world. Chito’s contributions will become part of our nation’s history.”
The invaluable role he played behind the scenes resulted in many fruits in the cooperation. In the past six years, Philippines-China’s trade reached close to $50 billion in 2019, growing at an average of 17 percent in the last five years; accumulated investments quadrupled generating thousands of jobs and fast-tracking our Build, Build, Build; tourism almost tripled to over 1.5 million (pre-pandemic) directly benefiting our local tourism service providers nationwide.
China became the top buyer of Philippine bananas and began ordering Filipino young coconut and avocados during the last couple of years. Discovering the growing demand of the Chinese for Filipino online English teachers, Ambassador Chito made time to visit the education companies in China. At its height, over 30,000 Filipino teachers were earning P30,000 to P50,000 monthly, from the comforts of their homes, even during the pandemic. The billions of medical supplies and millions of early vaccines we received from China in the critical months of the pandemic, while other countries were cornering and even hijacking the scarce supplies, were a direct result of the visionary leadership of President Duterte and hands-on management of Ambassador Chito.
For the more contentious maritime issue, he helped operationalize Duterte’s vision that led to gains for our Filipino fishermen and reversed the mistrust that had accumulated under the hardline policy from the previous administration. Filipino fishermen were able to again fish in the Scarborough Shoal in late October 2016 reporting record catch, a few weeks after Duterte’s state visit to Beijing, after several years hiatus. While focusing on functional cooperation (a term Chito introduced in 2016), the Philippines Independent Foreign Policy led to a more peaceful and stable South China Sea. Indeed in 2021, “There is a peaceful co-existence between Filipino and Chinese fishermen at the shoal, and we hoped that the tension in the West Philippine Sea would not further escalate,” Eric Naboa, who heads the Cato Infanta Fishermen’s Association of small boat owners, said in an Inquirer report.
Greatness in death is measured in many ways. Some are honored in death for the wealth they created, some for the scientific discoveries they made, and some for their contributions in their community. For the Chinese, Chito was a link between cultures and generations. For the Christians, Chito was an instrument of peace. 有您真好! (Having you made life more wonderful), George Siy quoted the Anvil Business Club speaker, former premier Wang Chien-Shien.
It is now up to us to continue his legacy of peace. Thank you, Ambassador Chito, the fruits of your efforts will continue to benefit our people and country for generations to come.
Austin Ong is a co-founder of Philippines-China Friendship Club and was a direct beneficiary of Ambassador Chito’s patient and generous mentorship.
Also published in Manila Times. We welcome logical feedback and possibly working together with compatible frameworks. (email@example.com)