[OPINION] Loose lips sink ships
During the Second World War, a popular term was coined to illustrate the need for information and communication security: Loose Lips Sink Ships. In essence this meant that any careless disregard for the confidentiality and security of information pertaining to the war effort would mean the unnecessary loss of lives. The point was driven across that those who had committed that error, or that slip, were the ones directly responsible for the deaths, more than the actions of the enemy.
This term remains relevant, especially on the matter of China’s security threat to the Philippines. It doesn't matter how much the Duterte administration is downplaying such a threat. The capacity of some Filipino security and defense officials to be careless in their actions and statements is actually one for the books, and that can lead to adverse reactions.
Military's image during Marawi
Here's an example: during and immediately following the Battle of Marawi, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) had enjoyed an immense level of support from the Filipino people. Such was the Philippine military's popularity that any news critical of them was immediately brushed aside by the public.
This was made possible through a combination of Martial Law measures. More importantly, however, it was the result of an effective information operations program spearheaded by the AFP civil military operations office and its attached offices. The visible faces then were the military spokesmen led by General Restituto Padilla Jr and then-presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella, who did frequent press briefings on the progress of the battle and humanitarian efforts.
Unfortunately, barely a year after the military was at the top of its public approval ratings, things just rapidly went downhill. What caused that deterioration was the Duterte administration's position on the West Philippine Sea (WPS) issue and its perceived preferential treatment to Chinese government and military entities.
The fact that the Duterte administration is partial to China negatively affected the social media sentiments toward the Philippine military. If social media is used as a gauge of public regard for the military, then it shows a disturbing and worrying trend. From being last year’s darling that could do no wrong, the military and the defense establishment are now frequently the subject of derision when it comes to the Chinese and West Philippine Sea.
A number of incidents brought about this negative perception:
1. The military claims on effective and sustained patrolling
It would not be fair, actually, to place the military the sole responsibility for the defense of the WPS. There is also the Philippine Coast Guard. Unfortunately, that fine distinction is lost on the general public. So when congressman Gary Alejano mentioned about receiving feedback of AFP demoralization as a result of alleged government inaction on China’s aggressive actions, the AFP’s civil military office had to release statements that the military was conducting patrols. A few actually believed and remained skeptical as to how frequent those supposed patrols are being conducted.
It was during this incident that a perceptible shift in the messaging of the Department of National Defense occurred. Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stated that the previous administration had mismanaged the West Philippine Sea issue. That drew a rebuke from Aquino-time Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario as well as social media outlets.
2. That Chinese military transport and information-gathering ship
Last June 8, a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 transport was seen at the Davao City airport. As this was a rare sight, it piqued the interests of those who saw it. As news of spread throughout social media, information emerged that the General Head Quarters of the Philippine military had no idea of the presence of the Chinese aircraft.
This happened despite the protocols governing the transit and flyover of such military aircraft, requiring prior screening and concurrence by at least the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence J2 and the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans J5.
Such protocols were brought about by the strict constitutional prohibition on the presence of foreign military troops, whether they be infantry, airmen, or sailors. It turned out that such visits of these types of Chinese military transports had occurred even earlier than June 8, with one witness saying that it was already present on May 27. Since at least 3 sightings of that military transport had been recorded, these appeared to already fall under "activities" covered the constitutional prohibition, unless they are covered by a treaty.
To complicate matters, on July 17, 2018, a Chinese military monitoring vessel, the Yuanwang-3, docked at the Davao Port. Its personnel were said to have disembarked, thus already indicating the level of impunity that the Chinese enjoyed even without an agreement with the Philippines.
The later attempts by the Philippine military to explain away the presence of these Chinese air and naval vessels in a metropolitan Philippine territory were frequently met with derision, especially on social media. Some choice unprintable adjectives were used to describe those within the military who were compelled to justify these aircraft and ship visits in benevolent terms.
3. Lorenzana’s insult to the arbitral victory
Following the July 12 anniversary of the arbitration victory of the Philippines against China and the release of a survey that a huge majority of Filipinos (approximately 87%) want geographical features lost to the Chinese retaken by the Philippines, Secretary Delfin Lorenzana made a disturbing comment. He said that the victory was an empty one. This drew sharp rebukes from, again, Albert del Rosario and Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who both stated that Lorenzana was unfortunately parroting the Chinese narrative.
A few days later Lorenzana issued an apology that did not really seem like one. He stated, “I sincerely apologize to these two great gentlemen for ruffling their feelings when I said that the PCA ruling in our favor is an empty victory.” He then followed this up with another statement that maintained his position that it was a hollow victory. "How can victory be claimed over an arbitration case that proceeded even if the other party declined to participate, having stated from the beginning that it will not abide by the arbitration’s outcome?"
By the time, a howl of criticism had descended on the defense sector, targeting Lorenzana himself. This was something that would have been considered last year at the height of the Marawi battle as unthinkable.
4. DND playing footsie with China
Just recently, the DND issued a statement during the 91st anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Liberation Army. It did so despite a series of questionable acts that the Chinese had done in the past half a year. These included the harassment of Filipino fishermen, harassment of a resupply mission to Ayungin, further Chinese militarization of their artificial islands by the installation of missiles, Chinese harassment of Philippine Air Force aircraft in the West Philippine Sea, and protocol-breaking entry of Chinese military aircraft.
The statement proudly announced greater cooperation between the Philippines and China on military matters, for which the natural precondition will be the establishment of military agreements that the Chinese side might just opportunistically use to their advantage to justify their unhampered presence in Philippine territory. This has been steadily criticized locally with insults being given in social media outlets of the loyalty of the defense establishment. Again, this would all have been unthinkable last year.
Whenever the topic of the West Philippine Sea and China is brought up with military officers and defense officials, they resort to a very common line, which goes like, “working silently and in the background to protect the country’s interests.” Although from appearances it does seem so, and this is based on activities done by the defense establishment with the United States and other regional powers.
The problem is that privileges given to the Chinese military, especially in the matter of entry into the Philippines, cancels out the advantages of undertaking watered-down territorial defense exercises with the country’s traditional allies. This is like a homeowner who works with the police to keep his house protected but at the very same time will hand the door keys to the burglar. This is because the DND wittingly or unwittingly is laying the groundwork to giving China a status equal to that of the country’s allies and partners.
Furthermore the defense establishment seems to look at Philippine territory as real estate that can be put up for grabs by any power, even perhaps the Russians in the future. This is a sure recipe for national disruption because it is already so obvious what China’s strategic ambitions are in the region. Hence, with Chinese military vessels frequently granted entry within the Philippines, it is as if the defense establishment has allowed Beijing to create the opportunity to outflank the country’s own defenses through a future system of access to ports and a network of military-to-military agreements.
This is not surprising given the lack of appreciation by the Duterte administration of the alliance system as a tool to compel China to properly behave in the region. Unfortunately the administration in fact dismisses the value of alliances, and this has then resulted in a confused and tragicomic execution of activities that are caused by two diametrically opposed objectives.
The first objective with traditional allies and partners is to undertake annually programmed exercises aimed at defending the country from aggression. The second objective is to level up activities with the perceived threat itself in order to accommodate the pro-Beijing outlook of the Duterte administration. Hence, all these contradictions in strategy and policies are not lost on observers in the general public.
Another repercussion is that the decrease of defense sector and military popularity makes them vulnerable to criticism in other areas, especially in matters pertaining to counter-insurgency and even its human rights record. A skeptical public then becomes difficult to convince and even mobilize for support. Given the overstretch frequently experienced by the military, it would be advisable to rebuild the trust and confidence of the general public in the defense establishment lest it be further overstretched by an uncooperative and distrusting people.
The last repercussion is China’s takeaway from what the DND and the AFP have been doing in the past several months – from rubber stamping frequent visits of Chinese vessels in the absence of a constitutionally mandated treaty to statements from its top officials parroting that of Beijing spokesmen.
Beijing will see a Philippine defense establishment that is unwilling to defend its turf. Beijing will then apply all the necessary pressure through its partners in the Duterte administration to compel the Philippine defense establishment to grant further concessions to the point that it becomes irreversible in the long run. Is it impossible? Who would have thought last year that a Chinese military transport could brazenly enter Philippine territory and land in Davao City without the knowledge and necessary clearances from the AFP General Head Quarters?
Although, indeed, much of the problem affecting the image of the defense establishment and the military has been brought about by the lack of any coherent strategy despite the existence of the administration’s National Security Policy and the National Security Strategy, it is also exacerbated by a cacophony of noises emanating from the Department of National Defense and the military. These are noises that telegraph to the entire world the confusion reigning within as ill-advised and badly-conceptualized statements pour out from spokesmen and even ordinary officials of the defense sector and the military. These are statements that have rattled and disheartened the public, emboldened Beijing, and eventually caused a backlash from the public against the defense sector and the military.
In that situation, the loose lips in the DND and the AFP have only themselves to blame. – Rappler.com
Jose Antonio Custodio is a security and defense consultant. He specializes in military history and has post-graduate studies in history from the University of the Philippines. He occasionally teaches history and political science in several universities in Metro Manila.