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Editorial

Who made this decision?

/ 05:12 AM September 19, 2019

The Armed Forces of the Philippines signed last week a memorandum of agreement (MoA) with the consortium Mindanao Islamic Telephone Company (Mislatel) allowing the new telco to build communications facilities inside military camps and installations.

Just weeks ago, Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary

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Delfin Lorenzana and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon publicly expressed alarm about the possible security threats posed by the curious coincidence of many Chinese-operated online gaming hubs being located near military bases.

But the AFP apparently ignored such concerns. Now, it will even allow Mislatel, an entity backed by the Beijing-run China Telecom but has started cosplaying as a Filipino company under the name Dito Telecommunity, to set up its communications network right inside military camps.

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“No cause for concern,” said AFP spokesperson Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo about the deal.

“Appropriate safeguards” were supposedly put in place before the MoA was signed, including the guarantee that the telco will not obtain classified information from the devices, equipment and/or structures installed at the site.

AFP officials claimed they conduct due diligence before any agreement is signed, and that the third telco would only “co-locate” its equipment on existing towers, and its facilities would be limited to reflectors and relay stations atop mountains on military reservations, not necessarily camps (the AFP website, however, is clear: “military camps and installations”).

Still — no cause for concern, really?

Mislatel, or Dito Telecommunity, is composed of Chelsea Logistics and Infrastructure Holdings Corp., Udenna Corp and China Telecom — it bears repeating: a Chinese state-owned company.

While countries like Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan, the UK and the US are either banning or restricting the use of Chinese company Huawei’s technology in their 5G networks to guard against Chinese spying, here is the Philippine government practically rolling out the red carpet for nothing less than a Chinese state-owned company to conduct business right inside its sensitive military and security installations.

The AFP appears to be incredibly blasé (or perhaps simply clueless?) about the entity it’s dealing with, pointing out that it has similar arrangements with telcos Globe Telecom and Smart Communications.

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Newsflash: Globe and Smart are Filipino-owned private companies, and not entities run and controlled by an authoritarian state that, for starters, has been trying to establish hegemony in the region and gain the upper hand in its territorial disputes with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries.

Given the billions of intelligence funds at its disposal, the AFP’s bright minds should know that Chapter 1, Article 7 of China’s National Intelligence Law  mandates that, “Any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law…”

That includes, and is especially salient for, state-owned companies such as China Telecom. As security and defense analyst Jose Antonio Custodio told Rappler in an interview: “Beijing itself will be tanga (stupid) if they don’t take advantage of the arrangement.”

For now, it appears it’s the AFP, and Lorenzana himself, who have chosen to play dumb. The DND chief, who is overseas and will be back tomorrow, said through presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo that he was not aware of the MoA, and that he would review the deal once he’s back. Panelo, for his part, said it was not too late to cancel the deal.

Imagine the implications of that incredible admission: the defense chief, who carries out the government’s national-security policy, being left in the dark about such a critical, top-level and sensitive agreement.

If the DND chief is the “approving authority,” as AFP chief of staff Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr. said, why did the latter go ahead and sign the MoA without his boss’ go-signal? Is sidelining Lorenzana the norm these days?

Recall that Lorenzana said he was likewise not consulted on another plan that had roused similar widespread national-security objections: allowing Chinese firms to develop three strategic Philippine islands for supposed commercial activities.

But if Lorenzana himself didn’t make this decision, who did? Who gave the green light to give the Chinese government, through its vassal company, a platform to gain virtual access to the country’s military and national security apparatus — and kept the defense chief no less, and who knows who else at the topmost levels, out of it?

What else, in fact, is being kept from the Filipino people about this deal?

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TAGS: AFP, China-backed telco deal, Delfin Lorenzana, Dito Telecommunity Inc., Inquirer editorial, Mislatel
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