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Athlete Who Won First-Ever Filipino Gold Sparks China’s Ire

Arvind Datta
Arvind is a recluse who prefers staying far away from the limelight as possible. Be that as it may, he keeps a close eye on what's happening and reports on it to keep people rightly informed.
Published: August 5, 2021
Hidilyn Diaz of Team Philippines competes during the Women's 55kg Weightlifting Group in Tokyo, Japan.
Hidilyn Diaz of Team Philippines competes during the Women's 55kg Weightlifting Group in Tokyo, Japan. (Image: Chris Graythen via Getty Images)

On July 26, 30-year-old Hidilyn Diaz became the first Filipino athlete to win a gold medal at the Olympics. She clinched the top spot in the 55-kilogram class weightlifting competition in Tokyo. She lifted 224 kilograms, setting a new record in the process. After her win, Diaz affirmed in an interview with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines that her country has a rightful claim over the West Philippine Sea.

“To ordinary people who do not know much about the [nine-dash] line and on international disputes, this is what I want to tell them because this is what I know: the West Philippine Sea is ours,” Diaz stated. Though she admitted that she is not in a position to interfere in international conflicts, “I still want to say that it is ours.”

The West Philippine Sea is a name given by the Philippine government to some parts of the South China Sea which make up its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Since 2012, Manila began using the name on its maps and other forms of communication. However, there is no exact demarcation that clearly separates the West Philippine Sea from the South China Sea.

Diaz’s statements have elicited condemnation from communist China’s media. In an article, the Beijing-backed Global Times accused the International Olympic Committee (IOC) of failing to stop “malicious forces” from politicizing the Games. It stated that Chinese media had praised Diaz’s performance at the Games and that the country’s netizens showed her respect. However, Diaz “shocked her Chinese fans” by wearing a T-shirt that sported the words West Philippine Sea. She claimed the region as belonging to her homeland, even though it has “never been recognized internationally.”

The article even pointed out that Diaz’s main coach is a Chinese weightlifter, alleged proof that cooperation between the two countries would benefit both parties. 

“This gold medal is exactly a reflection of the basic fact that China-Philippines cooperation is conducive for the latter. What Diaz has done shows her misinterpretation of her historic win,” said Li Kaisheng, a research fellow and deputy director at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

During her interview with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, Diaz said that the Chinese team at Tokyo was “a little angry” at her Chinese coach for not sharing her strength status with them. Diaz found their complaints perplexing. 

“Of course Coach didn’t share that with China. Why would he share? He’s here to work for me and make me stronger,” Diaz said. At the event, she defeated world champion Liao Qiuyun from communist China to win gold.

While speaking to a Philippine radio station, the country’s weightlifting boss Monico Puentevella revealed that he had spoken about Manila’s territorial disputes with Beijing to psychologically pump up Diaz. “China beat us many times, so you have to take revenge,” Puentevella told Diaz.

The Philippine government has rewarded Diaz with $200,000 for her win. President Rodrigo Duterte announced $60,000 in rewards from his own funds. The weightlifter has received $700,000 so far, including gifts from the private sector. It’s a huge amount for Diaz who was struggling financially prior to the Tokyo Games. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has promoted Diaz from Sergeant to the rank of Staff Sergeant.

South China Sea conflict, Washington support

Diaz’s statements on Manila’s claims in the South China Sea once again brought attention to the conflict between the Philippines and communist China over the region. Since March, Chinese ships have been traversing the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ.) A few days ago, the Philippine Coast Guard challenged a Chinese warship that entered its territorial waters. Communist China chose not to engage in conflict and sailed away. 

The Philippines also recently ratified the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with America, ensuring the military backing of the U.S in South China Sea waters.

On July 11, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that Washington abided by the decision made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on July 12, 2016. It declared that Beijing had no lawful claim to any area of the Philippines’ EEZ and continental shelf.

“We also reaffirm that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” Blinken said in a statement.