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This story was first published on December 3, 2019, when Huang Xilian was Beijing’s new envoy to Manila. We are republishing the story after updating it to reflect more current issues and controversies.
MANILA, Philippines – It was four years ago in December 2019 when the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian was welcomed by representatives of the Chinese community in the Philippines as well as protocol officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Huang replaced diplomat Zhao Jianhua, who had served as China’s envoy to the Philippines for five years.
A diplomat with more than three decades of experience and expertise in Asia and Southeast Asia, Huang steered relations between Beijing and Manila in the latter half of the Duterte administration, which had fostered close ties with the Asian giant.
Now, Huang is the ambassador to the current Marcos administration, which has warmed ties with the US.
Huang not only continues to face hot-button issues such as the decades-long sea dispute in the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea, but also faces added pressure from the US’ support of Taiwan, against Beijing’s “one China” policy. (WATCH: What is the Philippines’ One-China policy?)
Upon arrival in the country four years ago, Huang remained optimistic about his stint in the Philippines, saying he was “very honored” and “grateful” to be in a country where he feels “back at home.”
Here’s what you need to know about Huang.
Huang, 55, has worked with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) for 30 years so far with his career said to be closely tied to Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s.
Starting his career in diplomacy at the age of 22, Huang’s first job in China’s MFA was as staff member at the ministry in 1989.
He then became a staff member and attaché at the ministry’s department of Asian affairs where he served for three years before being assigned as attaché and third secretary of China’s embassy in Brunei in 1993. Huang was posted in the Southeast Asian country for four years.
After his stint in Brunei, Huang returned to the MFA’s Asian affairs department in 1997 where he held several roles such as third secretary, second secretary, and deputy director until 2002.
Following this, Huang would see a series of foreign postings for the next eight years, including assignments to India for three years as the Chinese embassy’s second and first secretary, and in Brunei in 2005, as a political counsellor for a year.
In 2008, Huang was assigned to China’s embassy in the United States, where he worked as a political counsellor for two years. He then played the same role for another two years in Pakistan from 2010 to 2012.
From 2012 to 2018, Huang was once again assigned to the MFA’s department of Asian Affairs where he worked as a counsellor for two years, and later, as the department’s deputy director-general for four years.
Huang received his bachelor’s degree from the Beijing Foreign Studies University. He also received his master’s degree with distinction from the University of Manchester.
China’s ASEAN man
Prior to his latest post in Manila, Huang held the title of China’s ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary, which means having the full authority to represent the Chinese government, in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta.
During his stint as China’s ambassador to ASEAN, Huang regularly hailed China’s close connection to the regional association in all aspects, from tourism to the economy and trade.
“Connected by mountains and seas, ASEAN and China enjoy a long history of amity and cooperation and are already a close-knit community of shared prosperity,” Huang wrote in an opinion piece in the Jakarta Post.
“Therefore the natural affinity with the Philippines has grown in my heart…. I have always been deeply impressed by its magnificent natural beauty, hospitable people, diverse culture and enormous development potential,” he said.
As China’s ambassador to ASEAN, Huang was also responsible for setting the foundation of China’s key document “ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership Vision 2030” after it was adopted by ASEAN in November 2018. The document, formulated with the guidance of Chinese President Xi Jinping, is envisioned to foster closer ties between China and the regional body.
“China’s development has global implications, as it benefits not only the people of China but also the rest of the world. It also has special significance for ASEAN, as ASEAN and China are interconnected and share weal and woe,” Huang said.
Huang assumed his new post as the Philippines and China celebrated 45 years of diplomatic relations in 2020, which coincided with China’s “conclusive year” to meet its first centenary goal of building a moderately prosperous society.
Controversies in the country
In 2020, the Chinese embassy released “Iisang Dagat (One Sea),” a Mandarin and Filipino song that showcased both countries’ commitment to helping each other, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lyrics were written by Huang, and produced in partnership with Chinese and local artists. It had gained notoriety, especially since the music video was uploaded the day after the Philippines filed two diplomatic protests against China for violating international law, and the country’s sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea.
In September 2020, Huang affirmed that construction projects in the Philippines involving Chinese firms would continue, despite the US moves to sanction several Chinese firms over artificial island constructions in the disputed West Philippine Sea.
Last February 2023, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel pointed a military-grade laser at Philippine Coast Guard personnel on a resupply mission near Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, causing temporary blindness to its crew. Huang was summoned by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. over the incident. He also met with Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Andres Centino, which was said to have “long been scheduled.”
‘We don’t negotiate with hostage-takers’
Huang was recently back in the spotlight over remarks made during the Association for Philippines-China Understanding’s 8th Manila Forum last April 16, 2023. He raised concerns over the Philippines-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, noting that the bases built around the country will be used to “interfere in the situation across the Taiwan Strait.”
He was under fire for remarks that mentioned the overseas Filipino worker community in Taiwan, saying that the Philippines should oppose “Taiwan independence” if it cares for the 150,000 OFWs in the country.
Party-list group Anakbayan and Senator Risa Hontiveros both released statements condemning Huang’s message.
“[Huang] Xilian is a hostage-taker, not an ambassador. We don’t negotiate with hostage-takers. He has no right to threaten our citizens while enjoying our country’s hospitality,” Akbayan wrote in their statement.
“If China has issues with the US, she shouldn’t drag our country into their fight. It is China who has been stoking tensions in the region, claiming territories that aren’t hers,” Hontiveros said.
“It is China who continues to bully, harass, and intimidate other smaller nations in the region. It is China who is making all this mess.”
The Chinese embassy tweeted on the same day that Huang’s speech was “misquoted or misinterpreted,” providing the speech’s text in both Mandarin and English. – with reports by Matthew Yuching/Rappler.com