Probably not 3,000, but Chinese agents are around us – intel experts

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Countries spy on other countries. They just differ in depth, breadth, competence of their intelligence network, and security needs. 

And there's such a thing as counterintelligence: detecting, disrupting, and if possible, blocking intelligence operations of other entities or countries. In short, spying on spies.

The Philippines had robust counterintelligence operations against Chinese intelligence from 2010 to 2016 – during the administration of former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III – said a veteran member of the intelligence community who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of his work.

“It was very active then because those were the marching orders,” and the intel community was “very keen” on Chinese moves in the Philippines at the time, he said.

The Aquino government was then building an international arbitration case to refute China’s overreaching sovereignty claims in the West Philippine Sea, and the stakes were very high. China was not only about to lose its territorial claims, it was also about to face international embarrassment in case the Philippines won, which it did in July 2016.

One thing Filipino counterintelligence agents discovered at the time was an increase in the number of Chinese embassy staff registering with the Department of Foreign Affairs. It was an indication of China’s growing interests in the Philippines, which, as shown elsewhere in the world, would be aided by intelligence.

After all, China runs an aggressive, global intelligence program that includes state-owned and controlled companies, which are mandated to gather intelligence for the government.

Several people, same ID

During the Aquino administration, for example, the Filipino intelligence community noticed a sudden increase in the number of Chinese media workers – reporters, camera operators, producers, assistants – coming to the Philippines and applying for accreditation among government agencies’ media pools.

It’s important to note that all major mainland Chinese media outlets are state-owned and controlled. China is an authoritarian state and it hardly has any independent media outfits.

What baffled Filipino counterintelligence agents then was how the local Chinese media bureaus, in some instances, sent different persons to press conferences or event coverages using the same media ID card. Apparently, someone else had applied for that accreditation and the ID card got passed on afterwards, the intelligence source added.

But that’s not how foreign media bureaus usually behave. Correspondents and their teams stay in a country for a considerable amount of time, often several years, before they get rotated. In fact, many foreign newsrooms hire Filipinos as their correspondents in the Philippines. To be sure, they don’t take their predecessor’s ID and assume their identity.

“How come the Chinese media had someone else every time? We thought that was strange,” the source said. “There’s even more of them now kasi wala masyadong nagbabantay (because there’s no one really watching),” he added, referring to the situation under President Rodrigo Duterte.

A senior military officer confirmed this, saying he noticed in 2019 an increase in the number of Chinese media personnel attending social events of the Armed Forces of the Philippines – events that are not necessarily for news coverage.

These incidents have prompted government agencies, especially the military, to set stricter rules on media coverage and accreditation. 

The military officer said it is indeed possible that Chinese agents could use their media as cover for their activities.

"That’s why it’s important that media also police themselves. Cannot be government since it may infringe on press freedom. Media groups such as the Defense Press Corps, FOCAP (Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines), and others should check their members, and if possible, make reports on such suspicious media as a basis for further investigation. And also to be careful in accreditation [of foreign media applying for membership]," the officer told Rappler.

Vetting process

In principle, government agencies only allow foreign media personnel who are FOCAP members to cover their events.

“FOCAP requires media members to comply with Philippine laws and the Constitution, including in its membership application forms which applicants must sign. It’s state function to ferret out foreign spies and deal with them but accusing anybody, including journalists, of espionage without strong evidence has serious security and work implications,” the group said in a statement in response to this article.

Besides FOCAP membership, the government also requires foreign journalists to register with the International Press Center (IPC), especially for access to events attended by the Philippine president.

The IPC requires all its members to renew their registration every year.

The IPC is supervised by the Presidential Communications Operations Office, currently headed by Secretary Martin Andanar.

Permanent visas

Yet other agents are in it for the long haul.

There have been mainland Chinese who, since long ago, moved to the Philippines, settled here, started families and businesses, built lives, sent their children to prestigious schools, and raised them to be like Filipinos. Yet they still act on Chinese interests.

“They have permanent visas, their kids study here, they befriend military officers and political personalities, and report back to China,” the veteran intelligence operative said.

The goal of these agents is not so much to fish for tactical information for use in warfare – the Philippines and China have never been at war – but to get a full grasp of how things really work and where the power lies in Filipino society, and then use that information to help China push its interests.

Other countries, especially the US, have been able to ferret out such agents from their midst.

The following are just 3 of many examples from reports by reputable sources available online.

Where’s the oil?

In peacetime, the goal of international intelligence-gathering is largely economic, and powerful, wealthy countries are drawn to emerging economies that hold lucrative prospects like the Philippines.

“Most [foreign] intelligence is focused on economic intelligence – how to get that trade advantage or score infrastructure contracts,” especially in the case of Chinese in the Philippines, the source explained.

“China’s so-called ‘invasion’ is ultimately for economic reasons, not just physical expansion. ‘Saan may oil sa Pilipinas (Where is there oil in the Philippines)? How can we extract it? Who holds the rights? Because we can take over,’” he added, explaining his sense of China’s thinking in gathering intelligence on the Philippines, a view he shares with former Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.

Why do the Philippines, China, and several other countries so vehemently stake sovereignty claims in the South China Sea? The reasons are ultimately economic. Aside from its value in fisheries and as a major shipping lane, the seabed is estimated to contain about 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Much of those reserves, according to the United States Energy Information Administration, is in Recto (Reed) Bank, which lies within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

The Duterte administration broached the idea of jointly exploring – and exploiting – the West Philippine Sea with China, which Carpio opposed. "Why do you want to share what’s exclusively yours?" Carpio said in July 2016.

Then in November 2018, the Philippines and China came to a preliminary understanding on their intention to drill and extract oil from Recto Bank – that it would be through existing third party service contracts with private companies, which recognize Philippine sovereignty over the area.

It effectively resolves the sovereignty dispute, at least over Recto Bank, in favor of the Philippines, Carpio said. Surprisingly, China appears to be agreeable to that – as long as it gets its 40% share in revenues.

Here, economic interest trumps the political.

Maybe not 3,000

The word is “co-opt.”

In analyzing the partly Chinese-owned Dito Telecommunity’s deal with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to put up cell sites inside military bases, former National Security Council consultant Jose Antonio Custodio told Rappler that the bigger payoff for China in planting eyes and ears in AFP camps, beyond cracking an operational secret or two, would be knowing which officers could be tapped – lured, manipulated, coerced – to do its bidding.

What China could be after, then, is to co-opt influential Filipinos. And nowadays, it could be done with a combination of boots on the ground and well-placed cyber connections.

Which is why both intelligence and military sources believe Senator Panfilo Lacson’s raw report that 2,000 to 3,000 members of the People’s Liberation Army – China’s military – are in the Philippines on “immersion” is likely true. Given China's access to technology, it doesn’t take that many people to get the job done.

Lacson himself acknowledged that the report was unverified.

It does, however, point to a reality often overlooked in the conversation about national security, especially in light of burgeoning ties with China. For sure, China has agents working behind the scenes to further its interests, said the intel veteran and another military source. It’s been observed in the past, and there's no reason it wouldn’t be the case now.

So 3,000 is a bit much for an operation that must remain covert and not call attention to itself – but zero is out of the question.

Online casino dealers

Let's just look at the Philippines' new visitors from China since 2019.

Some 538,000 people from mainland China entered the Philippines from December 2019 to February 2020, Bureau of Immigration chief Jaime Morente told a Senate hearing on March 6.

That number excludes the minimum 1.8 million Chinese who have been to the Philippines before December 2019. Legal or otherwise, many were bound for jobs in Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGO) – cyber casinos – that cater to a Chinese clientele.

Gambling is illegal in China, which itself had urged the Philippine government to ban POGOs, but President Rodrigo Duterte said the Philippines could use the money being made from them.

Tax compliance issues of POGOs aside, Senate investigations have unearthed a slew of organized criminal activities that surround these online casinos and their workers: kidnapping, human trafficking, prostitution, bribery, and cash smuggling to the tune of billions of pesos.

Senator Richard Gordon told the Inquirer he worries the Chinese may be using the money to fund a “fifth column,” or an operation of undercover agents working for Chinese interests.

In one of the earlier televised Senate probes on POGOs, a Taiwanese woman rescued from a POGO revealed that a certain Michael Yang was the industry’s protector in the Philippines.

Duterte once had an economic adviser named Michael Yang, but it is unclear whether this is the same person named by the Taiwanese witness.

For residents of the Multinational Village subdivision in Parañaque, the sheer number of young, able-bodied POGO workers moving into their neighborhood is troubling. That the opening of a firing range beside their clubhouse coincided with the arrival of foreigners led them to ask: are their new neighbors really just online casino dealers?

Baka (Might be) military,” one of the residents said in a video Gordon presented to the panel on Thursday.

‘Immersion’

This scenario – the creeping invasion – is what’s called “immersion,” the term Lacson used to refer to the alleged mission of the supposed 2,000 to 3,000 PLA undercover agents.

The last time Filipinos witnessed a military immersion mission was right before World War II. The Kempeitai military police of the Japanese Imperial Army came to the Philippines disguised as immigrants, and set up shop as merchants or sought jobs as laborers. When the appointed time came, they donned their uniforms and carried out the Japanese invasion of the Philippines that began on December 8, 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Can this happen again with the Chinese? The veteran intel source doubts it.

“The government now is very friendly to China. Ba’t pa magi-invade (Why invade)?” he said.

The fears of the Multinational Village residents are not unfounded. After all, many young Chinese men and women do enlist in the military because pay is good, then they leave and move on to other jobs, the intel source said.

Of the million-plus Chinese POGO workers in the Philippines now, chances are some of them had once been with the PLA, the source added. This may explain how two Chinese murder suspects arrested by police in Makati on February 27 were found to have PLA ID cards on them.

The question would be whether they remain in active service, and that’s something Philippine authorities ought to find out, said the source.

Uncertain times

If the Philippine intelligence community churns out fewer reports of Chinese intelligence activities nowadays compared to the previous Aquino administration, it’s not necessarily because there aren’t any.

If you don’t run counterintelligence operations, then you can’t expect to learn about intelligence operations being done on you, the source said.

Under Duterte, the intelligence agencies are under a different set of marching orders from their commander-in-chief who's a friend of China in the truest sense of the word. – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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