Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has complained that he was kept in the dark on an agreement between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and China-backed telecommunications company Dito, which allows the company to set up communication facilities inside military camps.
Dennis Uy, the local partner of China Telecom, wanted to secure the joint venture’s equipment and facilities from possible attacks by Maoist New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas who often collect “taxes” from big businesses.
Dennis Uy is also a close friend and campaign donor of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has launched an all-out war against the communists and has vowed end the insurgency before he steps down from power in 2022.
Senior defense and security officials, however, have raised concerns over the deal, suspecting China would exploit the agreement and conduct espionage.
Gen. Benjamin Madrigal, the chief of staff, has dismissed these concerns, assuring the public that the government had put in place countermeasures to prevent eavesdropping and monitoring of communications traffic in military camps.
Madrigal, who will retire next week, said the military had expected China and other powers, including the United States, Russia and Japan, to spy even on allies and partners as part of their statecraft.
Lorenzana had also raised concern over the sprouting of many Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGO) centers near military facilities, which he described as potential “listening posts.” The Chinese embassy denies the claim vehemently.
But Lorenzana has every reason to be very concerned, because there had been precedents, especially in the 1960s in Syria when an Israeli spy, Eliahu Cohen, successfully penetrated the top political and military circles in Damascus.
He first surfaced as a Syrian expat in Buenos Aires, befriending an army general who was the defense attaché in Argentina, and later the president of Syria after a coup in the early 1960s.
Assuming a fake identity, Kamal Amin Thaabet, and introducing himself as a wealthy Syrian trader, he set up his import-export trading shop near Syria’s main military headquarters, monitoring goings in and out in the base as well as communications traffic. He also used the business to smuggle information, including photographs and classified documents, into Israel through European cities.
He was so effective that information he had gathered was used by Israel in a swift and victorious operation over the Arabs in the late 1960s. He was executed after being caught sending secret messages through Morse code from his apartment in 1965.
Cohen’s work iwas a common cloak-and-dagger operation during the Cold War era. Espionage today has become sophisticated, with the use of satellites, super computers and yes, social media, as Facebook and Twitter have become a treasure trove of information – the most important commodity.
If Cohen could spy on Syria using crude equipment from his apartment across the main military headquarters, how much more in the digital age, as POGOs rise within one-kilometer radius from military facilities in Manila and Cavite.
No wonder many Chinese business operations have set up shop near or across the US embassy in Manila as well as the banks of the Pasig River in an apartment with a good view of Malacañang.
Security officials suspect that Beijing had instructed its private businesses as well as individuals to help gather intelligence wherever they are based abroad, to gain access to industrial and military designs and copy equipment through reverse engineering, thus saving millions of dollars in research and development.
China, of course, denies these accusations. It already produces cheaper but effective equipment, especially in telecommunications, including advanced 5G technology.
While some Western countries, including the United States, Australia and United Kingdom, have turned their backs on Huawei and other Chinese brands for fear of compromising their security, the Philippines has fully embraced China’s technology because of the cheaper prices of Chinese-made equipment.
Lorenzana might be a lone wolf raising alarm bells on the potential security risks posed by China’s telecom network as well as Chinese telecommunications equipment, particularly wi-fi routers and mobile phones.
Telecom industry experts have said no equipment is safe as phones and equipment are vulnerable to hacking. China is not alone in prying into other people’s communications; the US might as well be eavesdropping, too.