MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) -The news seemed ordinary in the beginning - ordinary only in the sense that many more like it had been reported in the past months: A Chinese worker for an online gaming company was shot by three other Chinese inside a Makati restaurant on Feb 27.
The victim died; two of the suspects were apprehended but a third escaped - likely a planned robbery gone wrong, said the police.
Never mind for now the startling thought that transplanted Chinese criminals have become so emboldened to think they could get away with murder and robbery in Manila; what's even more startling was the evidence recovered from the suspects: two Chinese identification cards belonging to the same person, plus three guns.
The IDs indicated that the person belonged to the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's military, and that his designation was "kitchen worker."
Days later, the police would say that neither one of the suspects was the person on the IDs. "Iba ang mga pangalan at iba rin ang mga mukha (the names and faces did not match)," said Makati Police chief Rogelio Simon.
But whose IDs were those, then? And where is the man now?
For a "kitchen helper," why was he palling around with fellow Chinese carrying guns?
Since 2016, some 3.12 million Chinese have flocked to the Philippines under the extra-warm relations pursued by the Duterte administration with Beijing; surely the mystery man behind the PLA IDs found in Makati is not by his lonesome here.
How many other PLA members like him have managed to come to the Philippines under assumed job assignments? And what, exactly, are they here for?
Senator Richard Gordon, chair of the Senate blue ribbon committee investigating the rise of criminal activities connected with the Philippine offshore gaming operators (Pogos), has a theory: Chinese spies have infiltrated the country.
The staggering amount of money the Chinese have brought here- US$633 million ($877 million) or P32 billion from September 2019 to March this year alone - may be related to that.
"With that kind of money, you can pay a lot of people, give them arms and take over our country. You can say I'm alarmist, but that's a fifth column… right here in our country,'' he said.
Days later, Senator Panfilo Lacson would cite his own "information" from a "reliable source'': that there could now be 2,000 to 3,000 members of the PLA here, posing as Pogo workers and undertaking an "immersion mission'' in the Philippines.
"In intelligence parlance, this information may be classified 'A6'," cautioned Lacson, but "considering the implications, it is one piece of information still worth looking into."
Indeed. The report about the discovery of PLA IDs among Chinese workers, plus the publicly aired suspicions of two senators, should have jolted Malacañang into a prompt investigation of the matter, right?
Add the disturbing report that a firing range was even built at a private village in Parañaque where Pogo workers have rented an upscale residence crammed with hundreds of Chinese Pogo workers, making residents wonder whether some sort of military training was being done in their village - and the country's military and national-security establishment should be, by this time, hopping about with bums on fire, right?
Wrong. The government's reaction - as usual with anything remotely China-related - was indifference and/or blanket denial.
Yesterday, PNP chief Archie Gamboa all but rejected the idea of Chinese soldiers operating in the country. "No, none," he said.
Meanwhile, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo was the picture of circumspection: "We have to validate that first. We cannot be making statements relative to anything that is based on speculation and unverified reports."
That a Chinese worker in the country had PLA IDs with him is, at the very least, already a verified report.
But the administration, awash in billions of pesos of intelligence funds, apparently needs much more convincing to look into the menacing game of shadows those IDs suggest is being played in its midst.
The presence of Pogos has spawned an ever-growing list of economic and social ills - flouting immigration, labour and taxation laws; prostitution, crime, the spike in real estate prices, disrupting the peace and order in residential areas; money laundering - that many see as non-commensurate to the supposed billions earned from these gambling operations banned in China yet officially sanctioned by this government.
But the possibility of a sinister military agenda by a foreign government with hostile intentions in the West Philippine Sea takes the cake.
If true, the presence of a Chinese "fifth column'' poses extreme danger to the country's national security and should not be taken lightly.
Except that this is the Duterte administration. Which means those discovered Chinese military IDs in Makati won't be the first and last likely forewarning to end up ignored.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media organisations.