Here’s why: Anonymous Philippines and its cohorts recently defaced Chinese websites—again! In its Facebook page, the group claims to have hacked and defaced 195 Chinese government and civilian websites. The group came to notoriety in 2012 after it defaced several Philippine government websites following the passage of the Anti-Cybercrime Law. The group has previously defaced Chinese websites, also in 2012, after the tense standoff between Manila and Beijing at the disputed Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal in maritime parlance) which resulted to Manila’s retreat of its frigate and Beijing asserting control over the reef.
While China’s incursion in these contested waters based on their myopic nine-dash line view is indeed deplorable, “The Philippines has very few cards to play…” as geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan said in his new book, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. Kaplan notes how the Philippine Navy was, for a long time, in a neglected state brought on by inept and corrupt administrations which made the Philippines “a near failed state”. It would never stand a chance in countering Chinese intrusion and successfully asserting sovereignty in the Kalayaan Islands or Panatag Shoal with such weak capability. Neither can it play the economic card, since China is the Philippines’ third biggest market for Filipino exports and second biggest source of imports. Declaring war on China or halting bilateral trade relations will only obliterate the Philippines’ recent economic gains.
The Philippines used the UN card by filing a case in the United Nations’ Permanent Court of Arbitration, urging it compel China to respect the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of claimant nations—a confusing and complex series of overlapping lines and territorial possessions. Kaplan sees this move as “the Philippines’ highest display of weakness”. Out of desperation, the Philippines would appeal not just to the UN, but also the ASEAN to support its actions in securing a conduct agreement between claimant nations. This move ultimately failed in the past meetings of the ASEAN in Cambodia (2012), Brunei (2013), and Myanmar (2014), since after all, China is one of the region’s biggest trade partners. Chinese investments in Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, in particular are preventing the regional association from achieving a consensus on a code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea.
While the Philippines signed a security deal with staunch ally United States prior to President Barack Obama’s state visit last April, Obama fell short of categorically expressing support for the Philippines in its fight against China. The limited amount of US help through information-sharing and capability enhancement exercises only proves how indecisive the superpower is in this territorial row because of its economic interests and obligations with China. It also proves the Philippines as a pushover, willing to set aside its national interests in favor of America’s Pivot to Asia—a move which Filipinos cannot solely rely on.
There’s not much the Philippines can do. And hacking Chinese websites of little or no significance won’t do anything as well. While Anonymous Philippines had succeeded defacing the websites, it also proves how novice their hacking activities, which are limited to denial-of-service attacks and defacement. They are yet to be at par with state-sponsored cyberespionage units in China, America, Russia, or Israel, which can steal sensitive commercial and government information, and cripple important systems and networks crucial to government, military, and economic operations.
We, Filipinos, think that defacing Chinese websites or arresting few, unsuspecting Chinese fishermen are acts of heroism comparable to David vs. Goliath. However, our “ingenious boisterousness and incendiary statements” [quoting Kaplan], do little to paralyze China’s creeping invasion of the West Philippine Sea, and only serves to antagonize the Philippines even more in the eyes of the Chinese government and public, pushing us closer to the brink of regional war. It’s like slinging a tiny pebble against a goliath wearing full body armor. War mongering Filipinos have even called for the extreme—torching Chinese businesses nationwide, arresting more Chinese fishermen, and even clamping down on illegal Chinese activities elsewhere in the Philippines. Yes, these will send China the message that we are mad, that we can mess with them, but we won’t be able to stand by the image we are trying to portray. We are not capable of shoving off China militarily nor economically. At least, not this time.
These hackers should better back off and leave the job to our diplomats and the military. While defacing Chinese websites is a good exercise in sharpening cyberespionage skills, it’s better if they leave this territorial dispute out of their “trainings”. Instead of wasting their skills on passive-aggressive actions, they should turn their anger into productive endeavors such as helping the government protect our important government, military, economic, and transportation facilities from a possible retaliatory cyberattack from China.
In the end, the Philippines cannot afford to be equally belligerent like China. We could follow the example of Malaysia, which was described by Kaplan as “lying low”, or Indonesia, “which has no well-defined foreign policy on the subject”. We could support Vietnam, described by Kaplan, as “ASEAN’s fighting chance”, or restart bilateral diplomatic talks with Beijing over the subject, but both actions will neither prevent China’s continuous encroachment nor promote our national interests.
Let us tone down the rhetoric and reserve our criticism and anger on China where it is due. This is while we hold the line we’ve already used to mark our place in the West Philippine Sea by improving our military facilities in Philippine-controlled islands and reefs, spending further on military equipment and capability enhancement, expanding our efforts to tap the natural resources present in Philippine-held waters, maintaining good PH-China relations in other matters unrelated to the WPS dispute (cultural exchanges, trade relations, tourism, among others), and most importantly, working to continue the Philippines’ stellar economic performance in Asia!
If every Filipino will work for the success of these suggestions, it will be the ultimate demonstration of our strength as a nation, by enduring China’s overtures without antagonizing it at the same time. Our heroism and nationalism is in question right now, but these do not always lie at the tip of a gun, the tip of the tongue, or on hackers’ fingertips. Heroism, in these crucial times, lies in actions that promote our country’s good name and interests.
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