• Melo Acuna

Long-time Beijing residents remember Dr. Aileen San Pablo Baviera

Dr. Aileen San Pablo Baviera, a loss to better understanding of geopolitics as seen by Filipinos who lived in China for nearly five decades.

MANILA – The Philippines and the international community will miss the Dr. Aileen San Pablo Baviera, former Dean of the Asian Studies Center at the University of the Philippines.

She passed away at 3:51 A.M. yesterday of severe pneumonia and believed to be COVID-19-related.

Dr. Baviera attended meetings at Ecole Militaire, which she described in one of her latest her Facebook posts as a “vast complex of buildings housing various military training facilities” in Paris, France where attended a conference last March 6.

Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana said he knew the late academician since the early 1980s when the latter was a student at Peking University.

“Her in-depth academic research, insightful writings and well-prepared talks constitute a lasting legacy of her influential ideas and policy advice,” Sta. Romana said in a statement sent this writer.

He added Dr. Baviera will be remembered for her “internationally-recognized scholarship and objective analysis of issues in Chinese Studies and Asian Affairs.”

The former ABC Beijing Bureau chief and now Philippine Ambassador to China said Dr. Baviera was “a passionate advocate of engagement and academic dialogues as part of the people-to-people exchanges and ‘track two’ or non-government diplomacy.”

“In 2013, when the official relations between the Philippines and China deteriorated after the Scarborough shoal standoff, she invited me to join her academic delegation that visited China and we conducted frank but friendly discussions with Chinese researchers on the contentious issues and the possible ways forward to resolve these disputes,” he went on to say.

Former CNN/Time Beijing Bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz said Prof. Baviera as a “fine political scientist and security analyst, a respected professor and a loved mentor.”

He went on to describe the late academician as a “budding China scholar.” He said she was a fellow student at Peking University during the early 1980s. He added though they had different courses or programs, they met frequently after class and shared experiences and insights.

He recalled Prof. Baviera was a government scholar sent by the University of the Philippines to study Mandarin and International Politics.

“She adapted well to the relatively Spartan student life of that period and we did our laundry and ate in the cafeteria where food was ample but basic.

He said the late academician was keenly curious about China who did school work diligently, conducted interviews and traveled as much as she could.

“As a scholar, she was rigorous and yet humble in her research, acknowledged what she did not know or understood and single-mindedly looked for answers,” Mr. FlorCruz added. He said this experience at Peking University gave her a distinct “rear-view mirror” of China which guided her as a China-watcher. She was able to discern the complexities and nuances whenever she analyzed what’s going on in China and how they impacted global affairs but kept her country’s interest in mind.

Mr. FlorCuz said this is the reason why policy makers and journalists turned to her for comments, context and nuance on issues about China and international studies.

“We lost a pillar of China studies in the Philippines. We lost a stalwart member of our Peking University International Students’ Alumni Association,” Mr. FlorCruz concluded. It was he who founded the alumni association.

From the longest staying Filipino in Beijing, Ericson Baculinao who heads the NBC-Beijing bureau said he knew Prof. Baviera during their Peking University days in the early 80s.

“The initial target of Deng’s reform was to liberate the productive forces of the peasants by abolishing Mao’s People’s Commune system and instituting household-based farming, which would be the subject of Aleen’s further doctoral thesis,” Mr, Baculinao said.

He added Aileen was enthusiastic and curious about all aspects of this “Changing China” and related historical backgrounds. The young academician was considered one of “us,” the group composed of Messrs. Baculinao, Sta. Romana and FlorCruz.

“At that point we have had ten years of living in China and freely shared with her our accumulated observations in China, that reflected both our readings on China and our experience interacting with the Chinese people in factories and farms, even if we didn’t know then that China studies would become Aileen’s lifelong career,” he recalled.

Messers. Sta. Romana, Baculinao and FlorCruz were student leaders who flew to China one morning of August 21,1971. However, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus made them stay from that time on. They worked in the commune and studied at Peking University as soon as Mr. Deng Xiaoping instituted his reforms. These gentlemen worked for foreign media outlets with Mr. Sta. Romana with ABC News, Mr, Baculinao with NBC and Mr. FlorCruz with CNN/Time.

Dr. Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, a fellow from the Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress which Dr. Baviera founded said the deceased was a “great scholar, mentor and role model.”

In her paper “Philippines-China Relations in the 20th Century: History versus Strategy”, Baviera pointed out Chinese written records showed Filipinos had gone to China as early as 982 when Ma-yi (Mindoro) traders appeared on the coast of Guangzhou, and in 1001 when the first recorded Philippine tribute mission came, apparently from Butuan and at the end of the 12th Century, Visayan pirates were raiding Fujian from bases in the Pescadores.

She wrote relations between early Philippine kingdoms and China were “rich and colorful” as Chinese sources reported Admiral Zheng He’s men landed in Sulu in 1409. Records revealed in 1417, a Muslim delegation led by the east King of Sulu, Paduka Batara, visited China where befriended the Emperor.

The same account disclosed on his way home to Sulu, the king died and was buried in Dezhou, in Shandong, where his descendants continue to practice Islam and established strong relatons with China’s Islamic Hui minority.

Dr. Baviera said President Marcos, in 1967 began exploring the idea of opening up to socialist countries “ostensibly for considerations of expanding trade partners to reduce dependence on traditional markets, but also because of security concerns.”

“We must prepare to co-exist with Communist China,” President Marcos was reported to have said in January 1969 during his State of the Nation Address, as Professor Baviera wrote in her article. She went on to say the statement “was clear that the rapprochement with Beijing did not come from an ideological change of heart by Manila but from purely realist considerations.”

She credited Deng Xiaoping in 1978 for the “strategic shift” in the direction of China’s economic development strategy as pragmatism and innovation prevailed over the dogma of socialist revolution.

“Deng’s reform policy opened China’s doors to foreign trade and investment, and at that point, China decidedly turned its friendly face to the rest of the world,” she wrote.

She described relations with the People’s Republic of China, from a Philippine perspective from 1975-1995 as “cordial at the political level, warm in the cultural and people-to-people aspect but only of limited success in its economic objectives.”

Looking at the recent turn of events, Dr. Baviera said fears of China comes from an overblown threat, “fanned by an over-imaginative media, that appears to negate 25 years of otherwise cordial relations with the PRC and over a thousand years of people-to-people contact.”

She cited another irritant in the relations between the two countries is the illegal entry of many Chinese from the mainland, “whether they are here to improve their income opportunities or as a transit point for other destinations.” She added it is unfortunate that corruption and poor law enforcement in the Philippines attract many undesirable aliens, “the result being that transnational crime is now a major problem in Philippine society.” (Melo M. Acuña)




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