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Editorial

Power in the wrong hands

/ 04:08 AM November 26, 2019

In case the Philippines gets into serious conflict with another country, is it possible for that country to acquire the capability to subdue us by shutting down the Philippines’ power infrastructure, and by extension all other utilities (information technology, communications, water) that depend on that vital grid?

That may seem like a far-fetched idea — except it isn’t. Last week, energy officials confirmed to senators in a budget hearing the chilling scenario that it has now become “possible” for China to remotely shut down the Philippines’ power supply.

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How did we come to this? While the whole country was apparently asleep, China, through its state-owned State Grid Corp. of China (SGCC), managed not only to acquire 40 percent of the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines (NGCP), the country’s sole power transmission line that supplies electricity throughout Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, but also to reconfigure the system to its ends.

While the NGCP contract provides that only Filipinos can operate the transmission machines, with Chinese engineers limited to providing technical assistance, the SGCC was reportedly somehow able to change portions of the instruction manuals to Chinese, rendering the Filipino engineers unable to operate the system.

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According to Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, chair of the Senate energy committee, Melvin Matibag, president of the National Transmission Corp. (Transco) which owns the NGCP, admitted that while Transco has oversight over the NGCP, its access to the system was limited.

The power grid can now be “operated remotely” through a monitoring and control system called Scada, or supervisory control and data acquisition, and that remote operating system is located in Nanjing, China.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros voiced out the logical question arising from that setup: “Is it possible for our power grid to be taken down remotely?”

Matibag’s answer, per Gatchalian: “Given the technological advancement right now in the telecommunications as well as in software, that is possible.”

And if Chinese engineers in Nanjing do get instructions to turn off the Philippines’ power grid, what can the country do? For perhaps a day or two, virtually nothing. Under the current system, the Philippines can only do a manual override of the system within “24 to 48 hours depending on the gravity” of the disruption.

That is an unbelievable surrender of the country’s vital control over its power system. Who green-lighted, first of all, the change in the instruction manuals to Chinese? When did this happen? And was there not one Filipino engineer or company executive who objected to or raised questions about the dire national-security implications of this change, which effectively allowed the Chinese to gain control of the utility?

How could any self-respecting nation allow itself to be outwitted this way — to hand over the remote command over its critical power grid to another country without so much as a squawk of alarm from responsible members and leaders of its government?

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What sticks the knife in further, and twists it, is the fact that the country now holding sway over the Philippines’ power infrastructure isn’t some ordinary friendly neighbor or ally, but China. China, whose authoritarian government in Beijing has repeatedly committed acts of provocation and aggression against the Philippines, and has a vested interest in weakening the country’s position over territories and resources in the West Philippine Sea that Beijing claims for its own despite an international decision invalidating such claims and upholding the Philippine side.

China, which has nevertheless found a staunch, unyielding champion in the current Duterte administration through blandishments of massive loans and aid, enabling Beijing and favored state-owned companies to acquire an ever-increasing hold on huge resources and projects in the Philippines, especially in such vital sectors as telecommunications, water, gas and now power.

“We have given our grid… to a foreign corporation that has interests that collide with our country in the West Philippine Sea,” warned Sen. Richard Gordon. “And that [country] obviously has a hegemonic ambition.”

Added Senate Majority Leader Miguel Zubiri: “If we are being invaded and they black us out, then that is a problem.”

That’s putting it mildly. Allowing this dangerous state of affairs to stand is nothing less than a betrayal of the country and its people. The Philippines needs to wrest back control of its power grid from Chinese hands, and exact accountability from those responsible for this treasonous arrangement.

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TAGS: editorial, NGCP, PH-China relations, Philippine power supply, SGCC
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