Spy vs spy

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

For the younger generations, Spy vs. Spy is a comic strip in Mad magazine about espionage activities between two stereotypical Cold War-era “Black” and “White” spies.

The comic strip was popular enough to be spun off into a video game in 2005.

It was funny and entertaining, unlike the real world of international espionage, which, as we have seen from verified accounts around the world, can be violent, brutal and deadly.

The espionage gadgets and activities we see in the movies are not purely fiction. There really are poison-tipped umbrellas (and they have been used, with lethal results) and surveillance cameras hidden in items such as lapel pins.

With an avowed “independent” foreign policy of being a friend to all and enemy of none, the Philippines shouldn’t be worrying about foreign governments spying on the country.

Our centuries-old friendship with one particular country, unfortunately, has become frayed, thanks to its greedy maritime claims and might-makes-right policy. Today our ties with China have been further strained by what appears to be its wiretapping activities in the Philippines.

*      *      *

If it’s any consolation, we are not alone.

In London, the UK Foreign Office summoned this week China’s ambassador, Zheng Zeguang. Several reports said the envoy was given a “dressing down” by Foreign Secretary David Cameron over the “recent pattern of behavior directed by China against the UK, including cyber-attacks, reports of espionage links and the issuing of bounties.”

These activities, the UK Foreign Office said, were “not acceptable.”

Zheng was summoned after three men were charged in the UK with offenses under their National Security Act for allegedly spying for the intelligence services of Hong Kong, China’s special administrative region, between Dec. 20 last year until May 2 this year.

Facing charges are UK Border Force officer Chi Leung (Peter) Wai, 38; Home Office immigration officer and ex-Royal Marine Matthew Trickett, 37, and retired Hong Kong cop turned HK trade official Chung Biu (Billy) Yuen, 63.

China’s embassy in the UK described the charges as “groundless and slanderous” and complained about the UK’s “wrongful behavior, including its unwarranted accusation” against the Hong Kong government.

*      *      *

In Manila, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla has ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to probe what looks like wiretapping by the Chinese embassy of a conversation last January between one of its diplomats and the commander (now on leave) of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Western Command, Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos.

The embassy itself provided the ammunition for the probe, with the release of a transcript of the supposed phone conversation wherein Carlos said he (plus his superiors Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and National Security Adviser Eduardo Año) supported a “new model” for maritime conduct in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal where the rusty Navy ship BRP Sierra Madre serves as a Philippine military outpost.

Several possibilities have been raised about that conversation, if it truly took place, all of which are not flattering to Carlos, including the most benign – that he was too trusting of the Chinese.

But looking on the bright side (for those who see Beijing engaging in hybrid warfare), it could prove that China is engaged in the interception and recording of communication with officials of friendly countries. Officially, the Philippines is on friendly terms with the world.

The transcript, reportedly released by a “ranking Chinese official,” can be ground for expulsion of Chinese diplomats, according to Teodoro and Año, who both denied expressing support for the “new model.”

Año, in a statement, also accused the Chinese embassy of “repeated acts of engaging and dissemination of disinformation, misinformation and malinformation,” with the objective of sowing discord and disunity.

“Those individuals in the Chinese embassy... and those responsible for these malign influence and interference operations must be removed from the country immediately,” Año said.

There has been no denial from Beijing about the transcript. Instead, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lin Jian said their embassy in Manila had released details about “relevant communications” between the two countries on managing the situation in Ayungin, which the Philippine government refuses to honor. Lin did not elaborate, but added that “facts are clear and backed by hard evidence that cannot be denied.”

“The Philippines has insisted on denying these objective facts and seeks to mislead the international community,” Lin said in comments released by the embassy.

Beijing is insisting that the Philippine government agreed to the “new model” and was reneging on the agreement. President Marcos has said he is unaware of such a deal.

It’s mind-boggling how a foreign government can believe that a military officer who isn’t even the Armed Forces chief can speak for the Philippine government on such a critical foreign policy and national security issue.

*      *      *

Beijing’s reaction to the possibility of its diplomats being expelled for wiretapping says a lot about how it views diplomacy.

At a regular press briefing in Beijing, Lin said: “China solemnly requests the Philippine side to effectively safeguard the normal performance of duties by Chinese diplomatic personnel, stop infringing and provoking, and refrain from denying the facts.”

Not surprisingly, certain lawmakers are keen to milk the controversy for grandstanding. Congressional inquiries are being scheduled, with security officials to be invited along with Chinese embassy diplomats. It’s doubtful that any Chinese embassy personnel will show up.

Remulla has said diplomatic immunity does not cover foreign diplomats’ violation of Philippine laws.

The Chinese, on the other hand, don’t think they are in violation of anything. They see the interception and recording of the supposed conversation with the clueless Carlos as part of the “normal performance of duties” of their diplomats in Manila.

This is how Beijing does business with foreign governments. Philippine officials, you’ve been warned.

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