Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s office on Wednesday defended a controversial deal to allow a Chinese-backed telecoms company to set up communications facilities on military bases, rejecting opponents’ warnings that it could compromise national security.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines last week signed a memorandum of agreement with Dito Telecommunity Corp, the country’s new telecoms provider, to build and manage communications towers and other equipment on military camps and installations.
But the pact comes at a time when Mr Duterte, who also wants to pursue joint offshore energy projects with China, faces growing attacks from the political opponents and local media over his administration’s warming relationships with Beijing.
China Telecom, the state-backed group, is the Philippine company’s main foreign shareholder. Dito is headed by Dennis Uy, a contributor to Mr Duterte’s 2016 presidential campaign who is from the president’s hometown Davao.
“We are confident there would be no breach in security as safeguard measures would be put in place as a matter and part of security protocols,” Martin Andanar, who heads Mr Duterte’s Presidential Communications Operations Office, said on Wednesday in a statement emailed to journalists.
Mr Andanar said the “concerns, including fears bordering on paranoia”, about the agreement between the military and Dito had been thoroughly addressed by the government’s security and information technology experts.
The controversy around the agreement deepened this week when it emerged that Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippine defence secretary, had not been informed about the agreement and said he would investigate it.
“We have yet to see more details on exact technical details of this before saying how compromising it could be,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political analyst and fellow at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. “But the fact that China Telecom is both a major shareholder and major source of technology should raise eyebrows here.”
Mr Duterte has pivoted the Philippines away from its longstanding ally the US and toward China, Russia and other countries since taking office three years ago.
However, Manila and Washington have a longstanding mutual defence treaty, to conduct joint military exercises, and co-operate closely in areas such as counter-terrorism. The US helped the administration break a 2017 siege by Islamist militants in the southern city of Marawi.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, earlier this year warned of the risks posed by incumbent Philippine telcos PLDT and Globe Telecom using Huawei in their rollouts of 5G technology, saying it might impact the country’s security and hinting it could also affect the country’s alliance with the US.
Among Filipinos, Mr Duterte’s tilt towards China is a rare vulnerable point for one of the country’s most popular and politically savvy presidents.
Mr Duterte came under attack by opponents last week after he said that he was willing to put aside an international arbitration award in the Philippines’ favour to pursue joint gas developments in the South China Sea with China.
Leni Robredo, Philippines vice-president, said last week that citizens were worried Mr Duterte was “selling out” to Beijing, and urged him to take a tougher stand on Philippine interests in the South China Sea.
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