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Chito Sta. Romana, Philippines’ envoy to China, dies at 74

Sofia Tomacruz

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Chito Sta. Romana, Philippines’ envoy to China, dies at 74

CHINA EXPERT. Philippine Ambassador to China, Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana.

Photo from Sta. Romana's Facebook

(1st UPDATE) The Department of Foreign Affairs honors Sta. Romana for ' his important legacy of selfless service to the Filipino in the most challenging foreign post'

MANILA, Philippines –  Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana, died in China, the Department of Foreign Affairs announced on Tuesday, April 19. He was 74. 

The DFA confirmed the news on Tuesday morning, adding that the Philippine embassy in Beijing was coordinating with Chinese authorities for the immediate repatriation of his remains. 

“It is with the inconsolable grief of the secretary and the profoundest sadness that the Department of Foreign Affairs announces the demise of Philippine Ambassador to China, His Excellency Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana,” the DFA said. 

Sta. Romana, a veteran journalist who lived and worked in Beijing for more than five decades, was named as Manila’s envoy to China in 2016. His appointment came at a time when President Rodrigo Duterte pushed to forge warmer, stronger ties with China and as the Philippines sought formal talks with China on the two countries’ West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) dispute.

Awarded the Gawad Mabini with the Rank of Dakilang Kamanong in 2020, Sta. Romana had been praised by Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.  as an “invaluable asset to the Philippine foreign service.”

Before joining the government, Sta. Romana worked as the Beijing bureau chief for ABC News, the news division of the American Broadcasting Company. Prior to that, he covered China as a reporter and producer for the network since 1989. His years as a journalist saw him report on historic moments such as the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, United States and China relations in 1999 and 2001, China’s economic rise, and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, among others.

Sta. Romana first traveled to China in 1971 as head of a Filipino youth delegation. He later stayed in China and studied Mandarin, working as a translator after he was unable to return to the Philippines due to political turmoil. 

It is this deep expertise and knowledge of China that has served as a “key element” in Philippine-China relations, Locsin said previously.  

“Under his distinguished tenure, Philippine-China relations flourished despite differences; indeed they flowered all the more in maturity and were deeply strengthened. We honor his important legacy of selfless service to the Filipino in the most challenging foreign post,” the DFA said. 

Milestones

During Sta. Romana’s stint, ties between the Philippines and China marked several milestones, including the historic state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Manila in 2018 – the first to take place in 13 years at the time. Under Sta. Romana’s leadership, the signing of several economic agreements also saw the Philippines becoming China’s second biggest trading partner in 2019. 

Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian condoled with Sta. Romana’s family, the DFA, and the Philippine government on Tuesday, praising his friendship and “undeniable contribution” to the development of ties between both countries. 

“Ambassador Chito has spent the best part of his life understanding and helping the world and the Philippines to understand China. China-Philippine relations have been strengthened and indeed flourished under his distinguished tenure as the Philippine Ambassador to China,” Huang said. 

But Sta. Romana’s term was not without challenges. In 2019, the sinking of Philippine fishing boat Gem-Ver by a Chinese ship near Recto Bank was one of biggest crises to hit the Duterte administration. It put a spotlight on Duterte’s controversial policy on the West Philippine Sea and tested his vaunted strong ties with Beijing.

Speaking on the incident, Sta. Romana told reporters months after the incident that it was essential China issued an apology. “What we didn’t want is they tell us and we tell the public. We wanted them to explain to the Filipino people,” he said. 

Sta. Romana was also tasked with shepherding bilateral ties after the Philippines won its historic arbitral award against China in the West Philippine Sea. 

In 2014, before joining government, Sta. Romana said while he supported arbitration, the Philippines “should have no illusion” that bringing China to court “will be a final solution.” The veteran China expert said the Philippines would need to combine arbitration with negotiations.

During his confirmation as ambassador, Sta. Romana told lawmakers that while assuming the post as Philippine envoy to China would be “quite a challenge,” the “key is that we have the lessons of what happened in the past.” 

Days before he passed away, Sta. Romana told the College Editors Guild of the Philippines 1969-1972 that it was a “rare privilege” to serve as ambassador to China and contribute to the “turnaround and significant improvement” in ties between the two countries. 

“But if there is one thing I am proud of, it is this: to have played a frontline role in building a bridge of friendship and cooperation between the Filipino and Chinese people that transcended any differences and contributed to regional stability and prosperity. For, after all, what is diplomacy for, if not to serve the people and promote the country’s interests?” he said

The CEGP had been interviewing Sta. Romana in recent months for its forthcoming book, Serve.

Sta. Romana is survived by his wife and two sons. – Rappler.com

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Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers defense and foreign affairs. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz.