National security on the line

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

At the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly, President Duterte surprised the audience when he strongly upheld the 2016 arbitral ruling that nullified China’s “nine-dash-line” claim in the South China Sea. This happened amid growing public debate at home about the entry of the third telco player, which is linked to a state-owned Chinese company.

A recent Philippine Bar Association webinar examined this issue and looked into the geopolitical and national security implications of a China-backed telco operating in the Philippines.

Retired senior associate justice Antonio Carpio emphatically raised security concerns, now that the government is allowing Dito Telecommunity partner China Telecom (ChinaTel) to install towers and facilities within Philippine military camps. China’s law requires any Chinese citizen or corporation to cooperate with the state intelligence services of China and are bound to give any information they have to Chinese intelligence agencies.

In fact, in a recent statement, Chinese President Xi Jinping instructed the direct participation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over private enterprises. In particular, the United Front Work Department, the intelligence-gathering and influence-making arm of the CCP, has been linked to several espionage, disinformation, and infiltration schemes in other states. The grander Chinese strategy is to exploit cyber and digital platforms for CCP’s hybrid warfare.

With telecommunications the carrier of data and communications, ChinaTel’s ties to the CCP pose a critical national security problem, given the leeway it will now have in the Philippines to access government and military information. Why would the Duterte administration even contemplate this kind of setup? Its overtly preferential attitude toward China, in contrast to repeated threats against the existing telcos Globe and PLDT-Smart, does not help the current situation where the country needs to build and scale up digital infrastructure capacity to restart the economy.

The hampered mobility of people and businesses caused by quarantine restrictions has forced nearly all sectors to shift to online, cloud-based technologies as an alternative to face-to-face transactions. This only underlines how critical telecommunications has become, and how imperative that it should be made more extensive and accessible. For all users, telco services must at the very least be reliable and secure. For the government, the stakes are higher: Its entire network must be secure from espionage and sabotage.

There is a legislative dimension to this issue, with the provision in the proposed Public Service Act (PSA) that aims to open up the telecommunications industry to foreign ownership by redefining its exclusion as a public utility. The country’s economic managers are right that the PSA is needed to boost the country’s competitiveness for foreign investments, but opening the telecommunications sector, let alone sensitive government infrastructure, to possible control by a company owned by a foreign state—such as China, which continues to violate and undermine the Philippines’ sovereignty—must not happen.

China continues to be a threat to Philippine interests and the rule of law; its behavior has sparked a growing multiregional alliance of concerned nations from Europe, the Indo-Pacific, and the West. The international community has praised and recognized the arbitral decision declaring China’s expansionist claims as illegal and violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Hopefully, President Duterte’s UN pronouncements signal a new voice in asserting the Philippines’ sovereign rights, together with like-minded nations.

Such a stance would be supported by the Filipino public. National surveys consistently show an overwhelming distrust of China and its continuing aggression in Philippine territorial waters.

All these factors are more than compelling enough for our legislators to consider when deliberations on the PSA resume in the Senate. Any security loophole left unplugged will certainly be exploited as a strategic opportunity to digitally encroach into and undermine the country’s national security interests. Especially at this time of a pandemic, there should only be one goal for the government and the private sector—the continued development and promotion of our national interest and economy.

This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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