MANILA, Philippines—The Armed Forces of the Philippines knows China is snooping on it so it has taken countermeasures to protect the country’s military secrets, though stopping short of adopting the Russian strategy of eschewing the Internet and clacking away on old but ever-reliable typewriters to communicate.
In AFP offices handling the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, cell phones are banned and there is no Internet connection. Communication is never sent by e-mail but printed out from computers and hand-delivered.
For good measure, USB ports are not used.
Another countermeasure is speaking in codes or using difficult regional dialects instead of the national language or English.
The first time I met my source for this story, he asked me to keep my cell phone in my bag. The next time we met, he took my phone and put it on the table back side up.
Both were strategies intended to muffle the phone’s speaker.
Aside from foiling the eavesdroppers, the military is also on the lookout for traditional spies, the source said. Some pose as businessmen, vendors or even fishermen, he said.
Traditional spies and communication intercepts may have been used in the Chinese attempt to thwart the Philippine Navy’s resupply mission to the Marine garrison on Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea on March 29.
That mission was “compromised,” as there were telltale signs of intercepted communication and traditional spies on the ground, the source said.
“Had the US Navy planes not made low passes over your ship and the Sierra Madre, the China Coast Guard could have been more aggressive in blocking you and kept you from getting to Ayungin Shoal,” the source said, requesting anonymity for lack of authority to talk to reporters about military operational details.
The government fisheries vessel manned by Navy sailors traveled more than 36 hours to Ayungin Shoal to bring a fresh team of Marines to replace the garrison on the BRP Sierra Madre, food supplies and other necessities to sustain the troops for their three-month tour of duty.
The mission also included me and other journalists who were invited by the AFP in an effort to “publicize and internationalize” China’s bullying in the West Philippine Sea, the part of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
It was the first time that the military took journalists on a delicate mission, a deviation from its policy of silence on the territorial dispute and instead referring reporters to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
The March 29 mission was imperative because the garrison on the Sierra Madre had been there for nearly five months, way beyond the usual tour of duty at Ayungin Shoal where the government grounded the rusting vessel in 1999 to mark Philippine territory after China seized Mischief Reef (Panganiban Reef) in 1995.
The China Coast Guard had blocked other resupply missions, limiting the military to aerial drops to resupply the Sierra Madre garrison.
The Inquirer source said three days before the Ayungin mission, an area off Palawan province that the Navy maintains for operations on the Spratly Islands lost all its communication signals, from cell phones to the Internet, even if there were no disruptions at all on the mainland.
The military knows, almost by instinct, who is intercepting the signals after nearly two years of heightened tensions with China over disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea.
“We knew the mission was compromised,” the source said.
Also monitored patrolling the disputed territory were four China Coast Guard vessels and two China Navy ships about 18 kilometers away from Ayungin Shoal.
The Chinese also knew which vessel to block, the source said. There were other fishing boats in the area around the time of the mission, but the China Coast Guard did not harass those vessels.
“They knew that your vessel was the one that left the military’s jump-off point. We surmised that they were actually waiting for two Philippine ships, that was why only the CCG (China Coast Guard vessel) 3401 blocked you. It seemed that the other Coast Guard ship was waiting for the other Philippine vessel,” the source said.
The “other Philippine vessel” did not make it to Ayungin Shoal. Halfway through the journey, the shaft of the MV Unnaizah May broke, practically disabling the vessel. The MV Unnaizah May was the resupply vessel that the Chinese Coast Guard chased away on March 9.
The source also said that the “spike in physical and electronic activities” whenever there is a scheduled resupply or troop rotation mission likewise alerts China.
A country spending billions of dollars on defense and security could very well have the most advanced technology for eavesdropping on its rivals for territory in the South China Sea.
But the US Navy aircraft that appeared to be P-8 Poseidons were perhaps the most potent countermeasure against China.
A Navy officer manning the fisheries vessel of the resupply mission said in an interview with ABS-CBN that he found the presence of the Poseidons comforting, knowing they were “our friends.”
Journalists on the Ayungin mission had reason to believe that the Philippine military worked with the US Pacific Command for the March 29 run to the Sierra Madre.
While no one from the military would confirm this, Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Cuisia was quoted in news reports earlier this month as saying the United States helped in the Ayungin mission. Cuisia, however, did not give details.
The Inquirer source said the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed Monday by the Philippines and the United States showed how “countries behave just like people.”
“People have personal interests. Countries have national interests. It is the national interest of the US to keep the status quo in the region. And we have to protect what is ours. Our interests simply match,” the source said.