DND has a 'concern' about AFP deal with China-backed telco

MANILA, Philippines – There was no problem with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) signing an agreement without the knowledge of the Department of National Defense (DND), but the deal must pass the defense chief's scrutiny, said DND spokesperson Director Arsenio Andolong.

"Of course, we have a concern about that. As with any proponent or entity that wishes to put up any infrastructure inside camp, we have a concern always," Andolong said in an interview on the sidelines of the plenary hearing for the DND's 2020 budget at the House of Representatives in Quezon City on Monday, September 16.

Last Wednesday, September 11, the AFP signed an agreement with Dito Telecommunity, formerly Mislatel, allowing the telco "to build facilities in military camps and installations," according to an official statement.

Dito Telecommunity includes the Chinese government-controlled China Telecom in a consortium, drawing worries and criticism that the deal may compromise the security of military installations and communications – that is, that China may use them for espionage.

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

The AFP is "usually authorized" to enter into agreements which are later submitted to the secretary of national defense (SND) for evaluation, so the deal with Dito Telecommunity followed the regular process, according to Andolong.

"Whether they like it or not, dadaan kay SND 'yan (it will pass through SND)…. The buck stops with the SND. It's up to him whether he will approve this or not," Andolong said.

Lorenzana in August flagged the threat of espionage from the high numbers of Chinese employees of Philippine offshore gaming operator (POGO) hubs near military camps.

Senator Francis Pangilinan pointed this out when he criticized the deal on Thursday, September 12.

In Monday's budget hearing, Gabriela Women's Party Representative Arlene Brosas questioned DND and AFP representatives on the deal's national security implications, noting the danger of having a Chinese-backed telco gaining access to Philippine military facilities.

The AFP dismissed these concerns, saying Dito Telecommunity's facilities would be "physically separate" from the military's own communication lines, and that they would be built in military reservations, not necessarily "within camps."

AFP public affairs chief Colonel Noel Detoyato said they are open to Lorenzana scrutinizing the agreement, and to calling it off should he find anything that compromises national security.

However, the military insisted that the deal was "no cause for concern."

"I think the AFP knows what it's doing. They had their own vetting and evaluation of the deal. So we're pretty confident that they did that," Andolong said. – 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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