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The Cyber Dimension of the South China Sea Clashes

  • Mark Manantan
  • Sep, 2019
  • 573
  • Espionage


Three years since the Philippines won its landmark victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague against China’s overlapping claims in the West Philippine Sea or the South China Sea, the majority of Filipinos still demand that the Duterte government enforce the arbitral ruling. In a recent survey, 87 percent of Filipinos want the Duterte governmentto “arrest and prosecute” Chinese fishermen for destroying marine life in Philippine waters, especially in light of the recent “maritime collision” involving 22 Filipino fisherman and a Chinese vessel in Reed Bank.

However, whenever a sizeable plurality of Filipinos pressures their commander-in-chief to stand up against China, President Rodrigo Duterte reduces the policy options available into a binary choice between war or appeasement. Such an approach seeks to perpetuate a superficial narrative that, in the long run, generates a psychological belief in a false and narrow path to resolving the issue. Halfway through his presidency, the overarching formula to Duterte’s approach to China is the oversimplification of geopolitical tensions on the ground, often devoid of facts, which consequently distorts a complex reality. Abetted by his overt theatrics, Duterte conditions his supporters and the public to play by China’s rules to avoid any military confrontation, which the Philippines cannot win anyway.

But China’s approach toward the South China Sea has never relied on one-dimensional or oversimplified tactics. Instead, it draws from a highly sophisticated political, economic, and strategic arsenal. War or military confrontation remains on the table, but closer examination reveals that - contrary to Duterte’s all-or-nothing calculation - China has continuously utilized evolving approaches to cement its unilateral control of the resource-rich stretch waters. That nuanced approach includes cyberattacks.

A report recently published by enSilo found that the Chinese cyber espionage group called the Advanced Persistent Threat group 10 or APT10 deployed two malicious software variants that targeted government and private organizations in the Philippines in April. According to enSilo’s investigation of the malware, the tactics, techniques, procedures, and codes perpetuated by the threat actor are all unique to APT10. In the same month, the Philippine-based Analytics Association of the Philippines (AAP) detected Chinese-related scripts that were inserted in the source code of various government websites such as malacanang.gov.ph, dict.gov.ph, comelec.gov.ph, pnp.gov.ph, navy.mil.ph, and laguna.gov.ph. AAP contends that the implemented scripts were aimed to intercept various systems and to collect information from the target users.

These incidents are not new. China has repeatedly employed cyberattacks linked to the South China Sea issue. The Philippines and China were involved in a mutual cyber conflict during the standoff at Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands in 2012. However, the re-emergence of suspected Chinese-linked cyberattacks poses an anomaly - one standing in stark contrast to the Duterte government’s guarantee regarding China’s benign intentions in the cyber realm.

As China’s cyberattacks resurface, it is vital to pay particular attention to the political and strategic currency of such malicious activities. The timing and the intent of such cyber operations warrants an interrogation. The recent recorded attacks in April coincided with major developments in the Philippines’ security and strategic environment emanating from its internal and external affairs. Both developments are highly interrelated to the South China Sea.

Following reports from the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command on the sustained presence and swarming activities of 275 Chinese maritime militia vessels, complemented by the Chinese Coast Guard, in the waters around Philippine-controlled Pag-Asa Island, Duterte issued his most provocative statement to date against China. He pledged to send his soldiers on a suicide mission if Beijing oversteps the “red line.” Duterte’s comments were a defiant exception to his usual conciliatory approach toward China. Against such a backdrop of heightened tensions with China, the United States and the Philippines renewed their strategic relations, as signified by Duterte’s acceptance of U.S. assurances to defend the Philippines if any armed conflict ensues in the South China Sea. The Philippines’ resolve was further supported by the U.S. Navy’s top admiral, who said the United States would begin classifying Chinese militia vessels as navy warships.

Furthermore, April was also the penultimate month before the finalization of the 20-year negotiation between the Philip...

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