Think hard, and think again
Much welcome is the news that the Armed Forces, after prodding from senators, is open to reconsidering the deal that allows a China-backed telco to install communication equipment and facilities in Philippine military camps. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he’s taken note of the senators’ concerns and will look again into the agreement.
He should, and very carefully—because that deal was first of all signed in his absence. On Sept. 11, while Lorenzana was away on an official trip overseas, the AFP signed a memorandum of agreement (MoA) with the Mindanao Islamic Telephone Co. (Mislatel) to build its cell sites and communication facilities inside the AFP’s strategic camps.
Mislatel, since renamed Dito Telecommunity, is a consortium composed of Davao City businessman Dennis Uy’s Udenna Corp. and Chelsea Logistics and Infrastructure Holdings Corp., and China Telecom, a China state-owned company, with a 40-percent stake in the venture. The consortium, led by the fast-rising business tycoon and presidential friend, made a big splash as the country’s forthcoming third telco to break the Globe-Smart duopoly in the telecommunications industry.
But Dito’s bid immediately raised red flags amid concerns that such vital telco infrastructure could be used by the Chinese government for espionage, and seriously compromise national security and the privacy of the Filipino public. The fears were heightened with the news that the consortium’s plan was not only to “co-locate” its communications facilities in the existing lines, towers and facilities of the two Philippine telcos, but also to install its facilities within Philippine military camps.
The AFP-Dito MoA tries to sweeten the deal with the proviso that payment for the use of military facilities will be made “by providing [Communications, Electronics, and Information Systems] equipment, upgrade, services and training to the AFP,” in effect helping upgrade the military’s technology and resources. But might the eventual widespread use of Chinese technology result, in fact, to further exposing the country’s national security to foreign surveillance and interference?
This is no idle worry. China’s aggression in claiming and occupying Philippine territories in the West Philippine Sea and undermining Philippine interests give all indication that it will do all it can, including deploying new-generation technology, to claim superior security advantage. The fact that Chinese technology companies are, under Chinese law, beholden to China’s opaque and authoritarian national-security apparatus has caused many countries to take a hard look at such arrangements that may pose a risk to their own interests.
The military’s own risk analysis acknowledged that the AFP’s fixed communication system linking all its camps and bases around the country was “susceptible to electronic eavesdropping and interception,” according to Sen. Francis Pangilinan. The analysis further stated that equipment to intercept signals are readily and cheaply available. “In other words, you can really intercept,” Pangilinan said. He also pointed out that China’s counterespionage and national intelligence laws mandate “any organization or citizen to support, assist and cooperate with state intelligence work.”
Sen. Ralph Recto, for his part, noted that aside from the information security danger posed by the AFP-Dito deal, the country’s power infrastructure is also at risk because another China-owned company, State Grid Corp. of China, now owns 40 percent of the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines. “Right now, the entire power (system) of the Philippines is run by the Chinese,” Recto warned. And with all the equipment operations systems written in Chinese, “They (China) can turn it off remotely.”
Apart from telco and power, China also bagged the contract for the P18.7-billion Kaliwa Dam project that will provide additional water supply for Metro Manila. Despite objections from many sectors, President Duterte has vowed that he would use “extraordinary powers” to see the Kaliwa deal push through.
Has any other government given this much unprecedented access to its vital telco, power and water infrastructure to another country, much less to one that is a rival claimant for critical territory and resources? The Senate is right to insist on a thorough and transparent review of such agreements with Beijing, and Lorenzana must likewise do all he can to subject them to the greatest scrutiny. “We’re not thinking twice. We’re thinking thrice, four times,” he was quoted as saying, after the Nov. 13 Senate hearing on the AFP-Dito deal. Aye, Sir— think more, think hard, and think again.
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