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Philippines ambassador to China 'Chito' Sta. Romana dies

FILE - Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago "Chito" Sta. Romana, center, walks for a meeting with Chinese counterpart on the second Bilateral ...

FILE - Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago "Chito" Sta. Romana, center, walks for a meeting with Chinese counterpart on the second Bilateral ...

BEIJING (AP) — The Philippines’ ambassador to China, Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana, has died while in quarantine for COVID-19. He was 74.

Sta. Romana was a longtime resident of China and had been a correspondent for ABC News prior to being appointed ambassador in 2016.

He was among a small group of Filipinos who visited China during the rule of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and were subsequently barred from returning home. He remained in China from 1971 until Marcos' toppling in 1986 and joined ABC in 1989, the year Beijing was rocked by pro-democracy protests centered on Tiananmen Square that were crushed by the military.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs announced Sta. Romana’s passing on Tuesday. No word was given on the cause of death.

Philippine media reports said he died the day before in the city of Huangshan, where he had been completing his 21-day quarantine after returning from the Philippines with Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr., who visited China for talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Sta. Romana was appointed ambassador to China in 2016 “in recognition of his deep knowledge of China’s history and people," the department said in a statement.

“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 department said.

Philippine relations with China have been roiled by disputes over rival claims to parts of the South China Sea, with China's much larger navy, coast guard and maritime militia accused of harassing Filipino fishermen and defense forces.

China has refused to recognize a 2016 Hague arbitration ruling that mostly invalidated China’s South China Sea claims and continues to claim the strategic waterway and its resources virtually in its entirety.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Sta. Romana was “well known for his profound knowledge of China."

“He worked and lived in China for many years and was our old friend and good friend. After assuming the post of the Philippine ambassador to China in 2017, he worked actively and industriously, making important contributions to promoting bilateral relations and friendship between our two peoples," Wang said.