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Dr. Aileen Baviera: Clear-eyed China watcher succumbs to COVID-19

One could say that international relations scholar Dr. Aileen Baviera got infected in the line of duty, before she passed away early this morning. She was 60 with no known medical preconditions.

Baviera, the former dean of the UP Asian Center and an expert on China, was at a security conference in Paris where she was believed to have been exposed to the coronavirus. Several other participants were said to be infected, including another Filipino.

Baviera was a China watcher for 40 years, ever since she decided to focus on China as a UP undergraduate and then as a foreign student in Beijing in the 1980s.

“Chinese society is old and it is new,” she wrote last year in Tulay magazine. “There is the State, and there is the 1.4 billion thinking, breathing, living people. Simplistic thinking will not do.”

But she concluded: “In the context of recent years’ difficult relations between the two states, if one has to take a side, one must take the side of the Filipino people.”

Her death has been called a “tremendous loss” to the country. There have been few Filipino scholars who have devoted as much time to studying China. “She was probably the only one who could truly understand China in this changing world,” said Dr. Jay Batongbacal, an expert on maritime disputes and Baviera’s longtime academic colleague, “unlike the old guard who romanticized China or the new scholars who either idolized or feared it. She was able to see and point to the truth that was often in between.”

Baviera was known not only for her expertise but her leadership. Aside from serving two terms as dean of UP’s Asian Center, she was the Editor in Chief of the peer-reviewed international journal, “Asian Politics & Policy.”

She was also one of the founders of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS), along with civic leader and close friend Tessy Ang-See, who said she was “devastated by the news.” Ang-See recalled sitting with Baviera, Prof. Mario Miclat and other China scholars in 1989 during a break in a forum on China and discussed “the need to push research on China.” That conversation led them to organize the PACS.

When she learned of her friend’s death, Ang-See was organizing medical supplies donated for hospitals coping with the pandemic. “I couldn’t help crying to know that while we were so busy yesterday, putting together 150 boxes of medical supplies, she was fighting for her life,” she said in a message sent via Viber.

In more recent years, Baviera was president of the Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress, a nonprofit she founded to promote dialogue for peace in the region.

Baviera’s expertise on China made her an invaluable resource for both government and media as regional disputes intensified in recent years. In one of her last articles, for the Australia-based “The Strategist,” Baviera warned of the Philippines’ continuing security threats in 2020: “Anxiety is particularly acute in the immediate maritime areas: the disputed land features and waters of the South China Sea to the west, and the Sulu and Celebes (Sulawesi) Seas to the south and southwest of the country. In the South China Sea, the main concern has been China’s expansive claim, and developments over the past year point to more trouble ahead over this longstanding issue.”

It was this kind of perspective that she expected to share at the international security conference in Paris in early March, held in the same military academy where Napoleon Bonaparte was educated, Baviera mentioned in her last post on Facebook. The conference was abruptly canceled when one of the participants tested positive for COVID-19.

According to her eldest daughter Mayi, she flew home to Manila last March 12 and was admitted to San Lazaro Hospital on March 14. She was moved to the ICU yesterday where she succumbed this morning to pneumonia believed caused by COVID-19.

Mayi said her mother was devoted not only to her scholarship but to mentoring and to enabling the public to understand the security risks to the world. A frequent traveling companion of her mother, Mayi recalls trips that had to be interrupted so she could do a phone interview with a journalist. “She was always very helpful,” she said. Baviera has two other children; one of them, Mara, works for the UN in Kenya and is still unsure if she will be able to travel home.

Baviera lost her husband Jorge in 2018.

Although she was technically a senior citizen, Baviera was healthy and youthful, according to her family, driving home a point with her death: COVID-19 can strike anyone anywhere. —KG, GMA News