IT may not be completely fair to say that of all President Duterte’s election promises, the only one he has so far fulfilled is the “Build Build Build” program, which he has allowed the Chinese government to implement in the maritime features within and adjacent to the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Spratlys. But it is not the first time, nor probably the last, that I have heard some serious observers say it.
Mountains of black sand and other earthen materials have been dug out of Zambales and other parts of our archipelago, with the collusion of corrupt politicians, to provide aggregates for the illegal and aggressive island-building in disputed waters. And the administration has shown total indifference to any threat China might pose to the territorial integrity and national security of the Philippines.
Who’s in charge?
Within the country, the “build build build” program is now inching forward, but China is still in charge. It has become clear that Beijing did not commit any funds to DU30 during his October 2016 state visit so that jobless Filipinos could construct their own Three Gorges Dam, but rather so they would have an excuse to send their Chinese workers over and present PDU30 their “turnkey” projects.
The workers come here apparently without need of visas, and without need of rigorous documentation or processing before they appear at the work sites. This naturally creates serious internal security concerns among the members of our national security community. But DU30 and his Cabinet seem ill-disposed to worry about this ill-defined growing alien presence in the most sensitive places in the country.
Beyond fixing transport
The projects have nothing to do with China’s much-ballyhooed One Belt, One Road initiative, although they generally involve ports, airports and roadways. But if we look deeper into the projects, we’ll see that they go far beyond just improving transport conditions in the country. They involve gaining a foothold in areas where their proposed infrastructure is essential to military movement.
One good example is the highway network in Mindanao built by Korean contractors. Besides offering durable roadways, these highways, like those in South Korea and Singapore, can allow small planes, including fighter craft, to land during emergencies. The Chinese are now poised to expand this network through a rail project that will grant them, during the construction, access to hitherto inaccessible parts of the country.
While doing these projects, they could undertake clandestine excavation and tunneling, if they are so disposed. If they build unauthorized facilities within the areas covered by their projects, we would never know what these facilities are and what secrets they hold. This question has to be asked: Is anyone looking closely at what they’re doing?
If the US military was suspected of storing lethal materiel where they had their troops and equipment under the 1947 Military Bases Agreement, and of doing the same under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), it is but natural to suspect the Chinese of doing the same thing, given the wide latitude DU30 has given them for their “build build build” activities. To be free from all suspicions, they need to be utterly transparent in everything they’re doing, but are they?
The case of Gensan
Another example would be the all-weather airport at General Santos, built by USAID in the 1990s. Despite the limited air traffic then, those in charge of the project were confident that increased commercial activity from the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area (BIM-EAGA ) would eventually raise the traffic volume. So, they made the runway so big as to be able to accommodate large American military transport planes like the C5 Galaxy. After more than two decades, the hoped-for increase in transport volume has not materialized. Now the Chinese reportedly want to come in, in the hope of gaining direct access to the secrets of the Mindanao Deep.
It was not long after the completion of the General Santos airport that reports of US submarine activity off the coast of Southern Mindanao had begun to surface. There has been no published sighting nor any evidence of these reports. But analysts believe the Chinese would want to monitor closely and counter these reports, if they had any basis. Meanwhile, Chinese ships of military origin, although unarmed and painted like commercial vessels, have been making port calls in Bicol, Batangas and presumably Mindanao.
The bid for Subic
One other significant site for the Chinese activity is Subic Bay, home of the US Seventh Fleet at the height of the Philippine-US Military Bases Agreement (1947-1991). China reportedly wants to widen and lengthen the runways to accommodate bigger jets, and enhance ports so that larger tourist cruise ships and bulk cargo vessels can dock. China also reportedly wants to set up a border security solution around the former base, and deploy sensors along the water to help secure the port.
The reported interest in lengthening Subic’s runways is rather curious. Like Clark’s runways, these are already long enough to support C5s. Regional and even international traffic does not commonly employ aircraft so large. Even the A380 planes of Qantas, Qatar, Emirates and Singapore Air are used only for long hauls and specific routes. If the aim is to develop a travel hub in the area, wouldn’t Clark Air Base, former home base of the US 13th Air Force, which already has all the needed facilities, better serve this purpose?
If the thrust is to make Subic an air cargo hub (as FedEx did in the 1990s), couldn’t the existing runways be simply rehabilitated? Enhancing Subic’s ports to accommodate larger cruise ships does not make much sense. Subic is not a premiertourist destination for cruises, and there is very little there to attract that crowd. Bulk cargo may be an option, but unless Subic is re-designed as a transshipment point on the scale of Singapore or Hong Kong, it may not be possible to justify the large investments involved.
The “new Americans” for Subic?
What exactly could China want from Subic? Did the Americans leave anything there which would be useful to the Chinese? After the US forces decided to pull out of Clark and Subic in 1991, when a brief standoff between Malacañang and former SBMA chairman Richard Gordon prevented the Estrada presidency from gaining immediate control of the former US enclave, certain activities inside the base, unreported in the media, seemed to raise questions about the role of Clark and Subic in the security set-up in the Asia Pacific after the closure of the bases.
Have the Chinese got their hold on this, and have they decided to become the “new Americans” in Subic? Is this why some 50,000 of the reported 400,000 or so Chinese who have recently landed in the country are now said to be in Zambales? China’s relationship with the province is not exactly new though. When Hermogenes Ebdane, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s secretary of public works and highways, was governor of Zambales, a provincial mining operation was shut down for operating without a permit, and solely by Chinese labor. But it apparently resumed operations before the 2016 elections.
Black sand miners
At the time, the Chinese were reclaiming contested maritime features in the Spratlys using black and white sand taken illegally from Zambales and other parts of the Philippines. Did the Chinese group involved in this mining activity leave the country afterward? And were they digging solely for sand and minerals? Or were they, in fact, conducting other tunneling activities? No one knows.
Under B. S. Aquino 3rd, Chinese expat workers started coming to the Philippines to service turbines and power plants built by Chinese firms. In 2017, many more came to work in electronic gaming firms. As I write, about 100,000 Chinese are said to be doing the casinos and e-gaming in Makati alone while another 100,000 are roaming northern Luzon for “tourism,” 125,000 doing mining and construction, and 25,000 island-hopping around Palawan, doing real estate. Gaming firms seem innocuous enough, but these are technology firms with access to high Internet speeds and modern computing equipment. Despite slow Internet speeds plaguing retail consumers and even BPO outfits, hubs with gaming firms enjoy proper service.
It is common knowledge that CEZA in Cagayan, and the RCBC Tower in Makati, have the fastest Internet connections in the country. These two hubs have connectivity that matches that of neighboring countries like Hong Kong and Singapore. The Chinese IT professionals located in these areas are favorably positioned as market players. But apart from their legitimate activities, it is worth asking if any of them are cyber-warfare capable and inclined.
The Chinese control of the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines (NGCP), which controls the supply and distribution of electricity in the country, puts them further in a more concerning position. We do not know what enhancements they have introduced into their network of substations, but it is likely they have instituted the tightest online monitoring and control.
On February 26, 2018, the NGCP declared a Yellow Alert. They said it was due to a drop in power supply owing to unexpected shutdowns of some power plants. The alert was lifted at 4:10 p.m. the same day, without a further word from the NGCP. Nor did the media ever try to investigate. It left the impression that the country has been put at the mercy of those who control the grid.
There is a push to have a Chinese telecommunications firm enter the local telco industry as the Third Player. Many see Malacañang’s hand behind it. If this player ends up using the fiber optic network of NGCP, they will have some degree of access to the substation network through which the whole network runs. If the China telco player becomes a national broadband network (NBN) entity, or if they become the most attractive service provider for critical government/non-government offices, then they can control connectivity across these entities. The implications are frightening.
Military forces stress the importance of Command, Control and Communications (C3) in any campaign or theater. This has since evolved into Command, Control, Communications and Computers (C4). Understanding that C3/C4 is part of a logistical equation intended to enhance a force’s ability to shoot, move, and communicate (tactical skills,) this framework should now be used to analyze China’s preferred involvements in DU30’s “build build build” program. Are we imagining threats that do not exist, or is there a real possibility of a Chinese invasion or of the Philippines becoming a Chinese province, even without one?