The specter of foreign interference

By Michael Henry Yusingco, LL.M

Nations interfering in each other’s affairs has been going on since before the creation of states as we know it. Indeed, many democratic governments today generally see these activities as being part of international relations. But there are still acts of interference that most nations deem as unacceptable.

According to a paper published in 2022 by The Royal United Services Institute entitled, Malign Interference in Southeast Asia, the following are potential avenues for objectionable foreign interference:

  • Informational: including attempts to use social media or other platforms to advance pro hostile-state messaging or narratives, as well as hostile states seeking to influence local media communities in order to advance their narratives. It includes, for example, activities of foreign diplomatic missions and their proxies, as well as overseas associations, aimed at manipulating national media outlets and social media platforms through the deliberate propagation of falsehoods.
  • Political: influential communities, subversive actors. This includes efforts to become involved in local politics or influential communities, or with local communities of any ethnicity.
  • Economic: purchase of or investment in sensitive critical national infrastructure (CNI), defined as infrastructure that is either critical to national GDP or is in a sensitive area such as telecommunications or national defence.

In the context of such a framework, it is only reasonable to surmise that malign interference operations are actively being deployed in the Philippines. Specifically, the fact that several public figures have come out to champion a view that aligns with China with regards to our troubles in the West Philippine Sea.

Technically, no crime has been committed in this instance. Expressing an opinion that contradicts government foreign policy is not necessarily treason or espionage. Arguably, this very act enjoys the protection of the constitutional prescriptions of free speech and freedom of assembly.

Just a reminder though, China has always been upfront with their precondition for a bilateral agreement and that is we surrender essentially the entire western side of our country. This is the Beijing narrative. Rightfully rejected by the Marcos administration and our international allies.

And so, how should the public figures who openly advocate China’s position be treated?

To answer this question, the public space where these pro-Beijing views are shared must be duly considered. First, the troubles in the West Philippine Sea are well-documented. The fact that Chinese ships are terrorizing Filipino boats and fishers there are publicized regularly. Second, this matter is now front and center in the country’s political discourse.

So clearly, the information ecosystem on this very issue is extremely vibrant.  And where public opinion stands on this matter is unmistakable.

One survey showed that 72 % of Filipinos are in favor of asserting territorial rights through expanded naval patrols. While another poll bared that an overwhelming majority of Filipino adults are ready to defend the nation in a conflict with a foreign enemy. Pertinently, as per another survey, many Filipinos actually want the Marcos administration to work with the United States amid heightening tensions in the West Philippine Sea.

Certainly, it can be posited that these public survey results reveal a weak impact of the Beijing narrative on how Filipinos feel about this matter. The resolve to defend Philippine sovereignty and preserve the integrity of their territory is patently impervious to the contrary view.

Under the present circumstances, suspicions of foreign interference are certainly reasonable. And unless law enforcement agencies can prove these public figures have violated the law requiring the registration of foreign agents or the law against espionage, then their right to express a contrarian view must be respected as commanded by the 1987 Constitution.

Of course, the rest of the polity also have the right to convey how they feel about those who have chosen to align with the Beijing narrative.

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