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Editorial

Menace in the pattern

/ 05:07 AM September 17, 2020

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stunned legislators last week with the disclosure that, after some initial hesitation, he had signed the agreement that would allow Dito Telecommunity Corp. to put up key telecommunications facilities in a number of military camps run by the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Dito Telecommunity is 40-percent owned by China Telecom, a company controlled by the Chinese government, while 60 percent is owned by Udenna Corp. and Chelsea Logistics headed by Dennis Uy, one of the top campaign funders of President Duterte.

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Lorenzana said he signed the deal “recently,” and sought to downplay concerns first raised last year that the agreement posed grave national security issues. The deal only concerned military camps that already host facilities of Dito rivals Globe Telecom and Smart Communications, said Lorenzana.

What is wrong with that argument? Lorenzana grossly fudges the issue by equating China Telecom with Globe and Smart, both of which are privately-run companies. China Telecom, on the other hand, is under the control of the Beijing government, which over the past years has grabbed Philippine territory in the West Philippine Sea, militarized the region, harassed Filipino fishermen, and unrelentingly undermined Philippine interests even as it has professed friendship and support toward a deferential Duterte administration.

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Lorenzana, as defense chief, should be the first to argue that China is not a disinterested, neutral party when it comes to the Philippines. It is to Beijing’s advantage to exploit the country’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities, among which, alas, is the shoddy state of telecommunications and information technology across the archipelago. So why even consider, let alone put one’s signature to, a deal that would practically roll out the welcome mat for China’s technology and usher it right into the heart of the Philippine military structure?

According to the Dito deal, China Telecom will be responsible not only for building mobile phone towers and related facilities inside the military camps, but will also recompense the military by helping it “design, develop, and upgrade” its IT infrastructure, which would allow the state-owned Chinese company to access the AFP’s classified communications systems. What would stop the Chinese company, then, from installing spyware and deploying IT “experts” that would peer into sensitive AFP communications and keep tabs on the very workings of the Philippine government?

Beijing’s military brass must be smacking their lips at the incredible luck they’ve had with this deal — a major adversary in the simmering South China Sea dispute (which had already won its case in a landmark ruling by the arbitral tribunal in The Hague) willingly subverting itself by turning over its military infrastructure for “upgrading” to a company owned and operated by Beijing. Note that under Article 7 of the Chinese National Intelligence Law, that company is obliged to support intelligence-gathering efforts by the Chinese government (“any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law”) — a deal-breaking factor Lorenzana must have also known from the outset. What kind of self-respecting government would enter into such an arrangement, given the precarious implications to national defense and security?

The AFP, however, stoutly says there is “no cause for concern,” as “appropriate safeguards” have been put in place, including a guarantee that Dito will not use the facilities it will put up in the military camps to secure classified information (as if such a guarantee amounts to anything). “It’s a low threat in terms of the raised concerns about spying, concerns about listening devices or eavesdropping. We have studied that,” said AFP spokesperson Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo in a CNN Philippines interview.

The sense of confidence is impressive, but the record of the AFP and this administration when it comes to matters of intelligence is just about dismal, and hardly inspires public trust that they have the wherewithal to head off any determined effort by the Chinese government to introduce into the country what Sen. Ralph Recto has called an “electronic Trojan Horse.”

Latest case in point: Malacañang admitting it was “not aware” that a Chinese company (yet another state-owned one) blacklisted by the United States for its involvement in island-building in the West Philippine Sea had managed to bag the multibillion-peso Sangley airport project in Cavite. And again, seemingly to the detriment of the country’s security, with the Philippine Navy howling that the plans for the historically strategic area guarding the nation’s capital includes booting them out.

Is there no one in the Duterte administration seeing — or willing to see — the menace in the pattern?

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TAGS: AFP, China Telecom, Delfin Lorenzana, Dennis Uy, Dito Telecommunity Corp., Editorial, national security threat, third telco, Udenna Corp.
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