China using ‘operators’ to divide PH on WPS — NSC
China’s “political operators” supporting Beijing’s claims in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) are undermining the Philippines’ position against China’s maritime claims, according to National Security Council (NSC) Assistant Secretary and spokesperson Jonathan Malaya.
One particular assertion—that the Philippines supposedly promised to remove the BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal—is part of Beijing’s “psychological warfare” to sway Filipino public opinion in favor of China, he said.
President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has denied there was such an agreement to remove the grounded warship which serves as a military outpost in the West Philippine Sea, and declared that he was rescinding such a deal if there ever was one.
Malaya said the Chinese were also engaged in “cognitive warfare,” a kind of multipronged propaganda campaign that includes use of artificial intelligence. The objective is to influence the opinion of China’s adversaries through manipulation of information to gain advantage.
“It’s to their advantage that we’re divided as a nation. They are undermining our country’s position through their political operators here at a time when we need to be united and show the world that we are supporting the Philippines’ stand,” Malaya said in an interview with dzBB radio on Thursday.
He did not name the persons he was referring to, but he was responding to local commentators who said that there was indeed a commitment by the Philippines to tow away the Sierra Madre.
“We’re falling into their trap and instead of uniting as a country we are quarreling because allegedly there are traitors,” he said. “While we’re all arguing here, they are building up their position and we’re falling into their narrative.”
Malaya also slammed China’s “double standard,” citing its own promises not to militarize Panganiban (Mischief) Reef and that it would pull out its ships from Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
In 1995, the Chinese built “shelters” purportedly for fishermen at Panganiban. However, the reef was turned into one of China’s largest artificial islands in the South China Sea and now serves as a military garrison with an airstrip to handle both cargo planes and fighter jets. In 2012, it deployed navy ships at Panatag during a standoff with Philippine vessels and has since continued to control the shoal, a traditional Filipino fishing ground.
‘Divide and conquer’
Maritime security expert Jay Batongbacal, head of the UP Institute of Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea, saw a similar “divide and conquer” tactic, this time applied to the Philippines and Vietnam.
He and two other vocal critics of China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea told the Inquirer that they were approached separately in July by individuals, whose identities they could not verify, requesting them to write about Vietnam’s alleged militarization of the South China Sea.
Batongbacal, retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio and De La Salle University international studies professor Renato De Castro said they were contacted through email and Viber and were offered payments for their commentaries.
They suspected that Chinese or Chinese-sponsored groups could be behind an effort to drive a wedge between the Philippines and Vietnam over their maritime disputes.
Two Inquirer reporters, another local newspaper reporter and a television station also separately received emails from three individuals claiming to have access to a supposed “top secret” information on Vietnam’s island-building plans in the Spratly Islands. These individuals said they were outside the country and could not meet the Inquirer reporters in person.
One of them wanted “to put pressure on the Vietnamese government through the media to stop its island-building activities.”
Carpio, Batongbacal and De Castro said they were offered an unspecified amount in funding.
“These were messages out of the blue, no real identification though they tried to make it appear they were connected with some legitimate business,” Batongbacal said.
Carpio said he deleted the emails because it might contain malware.
He was certain that the intention was “to direct the Filipinos’ ire on Vietnam and away from China for China’s bullying of the Philippine Coast Guard and fishermen in the West Philippine Sea.”
On Aug. 10, President Marcos told outgoing Vietnamese Ambassador Hoang Huy Chung that he looked forward to signing a maritime agreement with Hanoi, which could “bring an element of stability” in the South China Sea.
De Castro said Beijing could have received insider information about the maritime accord and planned to sabotage it.
“This is China’s worst nightmare—the maritime discord with Vietnam would be settled. If the claimant states will resolve their issues then China will be isolated,” he told the Inquirer.
Carpio advised the public and the media to be wary of a disinformation campaign “to divert the public’s attention away from Chinese bullying in the West Philippine Sea by blaming other claimant states.”
“We should remember that among the claimant states involved in the territorial dispute, only China does not recognize the arbitral award. China is also the only claimant state whose law authorizes its coast guard to use force to enforce its territorial and maritime claims,” he told the Inquirer.
The Chinese embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
The President’s latest move to resolve disputes between Manila and Beijing by appointing former Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. as Philippine envoy for special concerns in China received support from several senators.
‘Loyal to the cause’
Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said Locsin, now Manila’s envoy to London, is “perfect” for the job with his experience and expertise as a former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and ambassador to the United Nations.
“He is extremely loyal to the cause of protecting the sovereignty of our country as proven by the hundreds of diplomatic protests that he personally filed on behalf of our country during the Duterte presidency,” he said.
Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, chair of the Senate defense and security committee, said the success of Locsin’s role as a special envoy will depend on his ability to “navigate the intricacies of international diplomacy, communicate effectively, and foster a productive atmosphere for a dialogue between the two countries.”
Former Sen. and Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado said the DFA should clarify the distinction between Locsin’s tasks and the role of the Philippine ambassador to China, Jaime FlorCruz.
Karla Cruz, a fellow of the Center for Strategic International Studies, said the special envoy’s specific duties must be clear and defined “so the public also can understand” to avoid any doubts.