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Philippine Senator Seeks Probe of Military’s Deal with China-owned Telecoms Group

Luis Liwanag and Dennis Jay Santos
Manila and Davao, Philippines
2019-09-17
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Filipino student activists hold placards and signs against China during a protest rally in Manila, July 22, 2019.
Filipino student activists hold placards and signs against China during a protest rally in Manila, July 22, 2019.
Reuters

A Philippine senator called on legislators Tuesday to investigate whether a deal signed last week between the armed forces and a Chinese-led consortium to set up telecommunications equipment inside military bases in the country could threaten national security.

The deal would allow the Dito Telecommunity Corp., a consortium that includes the state-owned China Telecommunications Corporation, to install and manage communication sites and towers inside camps, according to the military.

In a resolution, opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros urged the Senate to probe the deal’s national security implications and whether it could expose Philippine military bases to Chinese espionage.

“There is an urgent need to determine whether or not the presence of Chinese facilities in military bases and installations undermines national security and whether or not the lease agreements entered into for this purpose comply with applicable law,” she said.

“At a time that China has continuously ignored calls about the West Philippine Sea, it is very irresponsible to enter into a deal with them that would comprise our own security and safety,” Hontiveros said, using the Philippine name of the South China Sea.

She also accused Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana of washing his hands of the deal, despite the military saying last week that he had approved the agreement.

Hontiveros’ resolution not been calendared yet, but the 24-member Senate usually acts on legislative measures that deal with national security concerns.

Dito Telecommunity, which plans to begin its commercial operations in mid-2020, consists of Filipino firms Chelsea Logistics and Udenna Corp, and China Telecom, which owns a 40-percent stake.

The two local firms are based in southern Davao and controlled by Philippine businessman Dennis Uy, a known supporter of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The Philippine military, in a statement issued last week, said Dito Telecommunity had guaranteed that devices, equipment or structures installed at sites provided by the military “shall not be used to obtain classified information.”

Military chief: Lorenzana knew of the deal

On Monday, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters that Lorenzana apparently was unaware of the telecoms deal.

Panelo said Lorenzana had contacted him to say he did not know anything about it, and the defense chief had told him he was “going to investigate and ask the concerned people involved in the deal.”

But military chief Gen. Benjamin Madrigal, whose signature was on the deal, said Lorenzana knew about the deal beforehand.

“I cannot do that,” Madrigal told reporters Tuesday. “Every time we sign a memorandum of agreement ... I sign it first before the secretary signs it.”

Lorenzana could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.

According to Senate president pro tempore Ralph Recto, a Duterte ally, Lorenzana likely was involved in the agreement because it dealt with a sensitive matter.

“If this deal can fly stealthily under the nose of the man responsible for our nation’s defense, then it raises anew the vulnerability of our borders from intruders,” Recto told reporters.

Jeoffrey Maitem contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines.

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