Hontiveros wants Senate probe into AFP deal with China-backed telco

MANILA, Philippines – Senator Risa Hontiveros has filed a resolution seeking a Senate probe into the agreement the Armed Forces of the Philippines signed with Dito Telecommunity, formerly Mislatel, a consortium with Chinese government-controlled China Telecom.

Hontiveros filed Senate Resolution Number 137 on Monday, September 16, to investigate whether the deal would undermine national security.

On September 11, the AFP signed an agreement with Dito Telecommunity allowing it to "to build facilities in military camps and installations."

Dito Telecommunity is a consortium that includes tycoon Dennis Uy's Udenna Corporation and China Telecom. Critics said the deal may compromise the security of military installations and that China may use it for espionage.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he had not been aware of the agreement at the time it was signed, and that he will now "carefully scrutinize" it.

In her filing the bill, Hontiveros said the deal may be in violation of the Section 88 of the Public Land Act which states that military reservations "cannot be subject to lease, occupation, entry sale, or other disposition, until declared alienable provisions of the Act or by proclamation by the President."

Hontiveros also cited the AFP Modernization Act which gives Congress the power to authorize the "sale, lease, or joint development of military reservations."

"Sa isang panahon na patuloy ang panghihimasok ng Tsina sa West Philippine Sea, napaka-iresponsable na pumasok tayo sa mga kasunduan sa kanila na hindi sinusuri ang epekto nito sa ating pambansang seguridad at kaligtasan," Hontiveros said.

(In a time when China continues to occupy the West Philippine Sea, it's very irresponsible to enter into a deal with them without reviewing its effects on national security and safety.)

'Chinese firms spy for gov't'

In a separate statement, opposition Senator Francis Pangilinan raised "national security" concerns over the deal.

Pangilinan said two Chinese laws require firms to "spy" for the government. He cited Beijing's 2014 Counter-espionage Law and the 2017 National Intelligence Law which mandates private firms to cooperate in intelligence and information gathering.

"What if the Chinese government says, ‘Oh, meron kayong access diyan (you have access there.) You are mandated to turn over information to us because we have the Counter-Espionage Law and we have the National Intelligence Law,'" Pangilinan said.

The opposition senator said that it's not impossible for Beijing to spy on the Philippine government given its track record, citing the case of Cathay Pacific in the Hong Kong protests and countries restricting the use of the 5G Technology of Chinese mobile manufacturer Huawei.

"Ang concern: gagamitin nung Chinese government yung information na nakukuha [at] dumadaan doon sa kanilang mga sistema para itulak ang interes ng China (The concern is the Chinese government will use the information that passes through their system to advance China's interests)," Pangilinan said.

Negligence?

On Monday, September 17, Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto said it may be "time to install a radar system" in Lorenzana's office so that he's not left out in important agreements such as the AFP-Dito Telecommunity deal.

"If this deal can fly stealthily under the nose of the man responsible for our nation's defense, then it raises anew the vulnerability of our borders from intruders," Recto said.

Recto said that the deal should have been "cleared at the highest level due to its security implications."

"The concern that these could morph into embedded listening devices, and that the project is like letting an electronic Trojan horse into our camps, should have been subjected to a third party expert study," Recto said.

The AFP had dismissed national security concerns over the deal, saying that Dito Telecommunity's facilities won't be physically inside the camps anyway.

But even Lorenzana in August had flagged the threat of espionage for Philippine offshore gaming operator (POGOs) hubs near military camps. – Rappler.com

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.

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