Cyberdefense should not be part of MDT

IN comments during a radio interview on Sunday, Sen. Francis Tolentino made the alarming suggestion that cyberattacks be added as a condition that would trigger the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the US, “considering that the battlefield right now is not just only about the conventional armed conflict.” While Tolentino's concerns about cyberattacks are justified, addressing them by way of the MDT is completely unnecessary and puts the Philippines at grave risk of becoming involved in an escalated conflict.

Sen. Francis Tolentino. Photo from Senate Facebook pageSen. Francis Tolentino. Photo from Senate Facebook page

Sen. Francis Tolentino. Photo from Senate Facebook page
Sen. Francis Tolentino. Photo from Senate Facebook page

The term “cyberattack” in the sense that the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations is using it, refers to state-sponsored hacking of a country's critical computer networks, such as those used by the Defense department, other government offices, energy facilities, health care systems and communications, among others. The cyberattack can be an end in itself, aimed at stealing information and conducting spying, or to cause losses by destroying or disrupting vital services. Or it can be used as part of a broader war strategy to wreak havoc and degrade an enemy's ability to mount an effective defense.

For example, in the Chinese invasion of Taiwan that is now widely believed to be all but inevitable, it is assumed that China's “first strike” will be a massive cyberattack on Taiwan, as well as against the US and Japan, which have both pledged defensive assistance to Taiwan. The US in turn will most likely respond with a cyberattack of its own against China.

There are plausible scenarios in which China might employ a cyberattack against the Philippines, for reasons other than those connected with Taiwan, but those are purely speculative at this point. And, of course, China is certainly not the only country known to be capable of mounting a cyberattack; it is, however, the only country with which the Philippines has any significant level of disagreement so it is natural to single it out as a potential threat. We would expect the Chinese to argue that the threat is very low or nonexistent, to which we would respond that, for the good of all concerned, they should take steps to ensure that statement is and remains true.

Whether the threat of a cyberattack against the Philippines comes from China or some other place, adding it as a condition that would trigger the MDT with the US is reckless, if the US would even consider such an option, which is doubtful. Unlike conventional military defense, the assets needed to carry out or defend against cyberattacks do not require resource1s the Philippines does not already have. For the sake of our own security, we must manage our own cyberdefense. In spite of our productive relationship with the US, giving it even greater access to critical systems might not be in our best interest. For example, recent sensational leaks of US Defense Department documents have detailed widespread surveillance — “spying” is a harsh word, but might be appropriate — of the US' own allies.

Another factor Senator Tolentino seems to be overlooking is that the word “mutual” in “Mutual Defense Treaty” is there for a reason; the Philippines is as bound to come to the defense of the US as the latter is to protect the Philippines. In the case of a conventional conflict this is not a real concern, as Philippine military capabilities would add virtually nothing to US strength if the latter was attacked. But a cyberattack is a different story; if the Philippines is treaty-bound to respond to a cyberattack against the US, that puts the Philippines at risk of being attacked as well. And if a cyberattack is considered an act of war by that same treaty obligation, that means the risk may very well include an actual armed attack.

Rather than tie the Philippines' hands by amending the MDT as Senator Tolentino suggests, a more sensible option to bolster the country's cyberdefenses would be to seek what technical assistance may be needed from the US and other allies. And even that might not be necessary; given the Philippines' reputation — a sometimes dubious one — for hacking talent and internet savvy, there are likely all the intellectual resource1s the government would ever need within our own private sector.

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