EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

The latest plot twist between the Philippines and China might just as well be a scene from an edge-of-your-seat espionage movie straight out of the Cold War era, where acts of spying and gathering information on one’s rivals characterized the rivalry between two world superpowers of that period – the United States and the communist Soviet Union.

Ah, yes, the Cold War. There are many intriguing spy landmarks from that time – a phone booth, a bunker, a boat. Berlin, the so-called spy capital of the world during that period following World War II, for instance, is dotted with intriguing landmarks of espionage. There’s the Bridge of Spies, the border crossing at Tränenpalast Station, Checkpoint Charlie and many more.

There’s the German Spy Museum where present-day visitors can see the spook and gloom of espionage. Spy junkies can see the Stasi listening room and the wide array of bugs or listening devices used by the secret police agency of the German Democratic Republic.

But this isn’t the Cold War era anymore; it’s supposedly an epoch of peace and yet here we are, watching things unfold between the Philippines and China with our military officers at the center of a wiretapping scandal.

I was in Honolulu, along with nine other journalists, in a meeting with a cybersecurity expert, as part of a United States embassy in Manila’s reporting program when I heard the news. The Chinese embassy has leaked a supposed transcript of a conversation last January between an unnamed Chinese diplomat and Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command chief Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos.

Supposedly, Adm. Carlos told the Chinese that he and his superiors agreed to a proposed new model to better manage the situation in Ayungin or Second Thomas Shoal.

Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, a lawyer, was quick to say that wiretapping is illegal and warrants the expulsion of the Chinese officials behind it.

Members of our group covering the defense and foreign affairs beat were glued to their mobile phones monitoring the news as it happened.

Their sources soon updated them that Adm. Carlos went on leave, although the AFP said it had nothing to do with the leaked transcript.

Clear the air

Adm. Carlos, appointed by ex-president Rody Duterte in January 2022, must clear the air on this supposed new model, whether or not the conversation did happen or if it was a deepfake. In any case, this does not mean it is the official position of the Marcos administration in managing or de-escalating the situation in Ayungin.

As former Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio said, it is the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) that is authorized to talk with China or any other foreign government. China, he said, broke protocol when its officials talked about a new model outside the DFA.

The STAR’s May 9, 2024 editorial also pointed out: “Granted the conversation took place, why would any foreign government take as the official position of the Philippine government on such a sensitive issue statements given in a phone call by a low-level military officer? This is a policy matter that is way above the paygrade of the Wescom chief.”

Adm. Carlos knows what really happened or what didn’t happen and it would be good if he speaks out on the matter.


Moving forward, our Philippine officials must be well aware that in this era, information, disinformation and misinformation can easily spread like wildfire; that China will not hesitate to record information, especially in this time of geopolitical tensions and that whatever information gathered from our officials may be used against them and the Philippines.

The Marcos administration and Philippine civilian and military officials must be transparent in their dealings with China. Enough of the secret gentleman’s agreements, informal discussions and the like because Filipinos ought to know what’s going on.  
Transparency is important especially in matters of national interest, Mark Manantan, director of Cybersecurity and Critical Technologies at think-tank Pacific Forum, told our group in Honolulu.

He said this was not the case during the Duterte administration.

I remember that it was also during the time when, at some point, reporters were no longer allowed to join and cover the re-supply missions.

Chinese officials have been claiming that the Philippines violated an “earlier agreement” entered into during the previous administration that supposedly only basic supplies would be delivered to Filipino troops and not construction materials.

Justice Carpio said any agreement entered into by former president Duterte on that matter was “in violation of the Constitution because that is a waiver of sovereignty.”

He also said that any agreement must have been ratified by the Senate.

Asked whether he believes the audio may have been manipulated, Pacific Forum’s Mark said anything was possible.

In any case, Adm. Carlos must clear the air.

I can’t help but wonder though – isn’t it ironic that while supposedly discussing with Philippine officials a new model to improve the situation in the disputed seas, China would engage in wiretapping, something that is illegal in the Philippines? Perhaps it was well aware that the conversation, assuming it transpired, was not binding.

All’s fair in love and war, says an old cliché, but this is not wartime; this is supposedly an epoch of peace. “War-tapping” – a term I borrowed from a Filipino journalist who mistakenly typed it in a Viber group instead of wiretapping – as well as disinformation and inhumane behavior should have no place in this era.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen (Iris Gonzales) on Facebook.

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