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China-Philippines Hacking War: A Missed Opportunity for Beijing?

by Adam Segal
May 10, 2012

A handout photo of two Chinese surveillance ships which sailed between a Philippines warship and eight Chinese fishing boats to prevent the arrest of any fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal, in the South China Sea, about 124 nautical miles off the main island of Luzon on April 10, 2012. A handout photo of two Chinese surveillance ships which sailed between a Philippines warship and eight Chinese fishing boats to prevent the arrest of any fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal, in the South China Sea, about 124 nautical miles off the main island of Luzon on April 10, 2012. (Handout / Courtesy of Reuters)


China continues to raise the heat in its dispute with the Philippines over the sovereignty of Scarborough Shoal/Huangyan Island. On Monday, He Jia, an anchor on China’s state-run CCTV, mistakenly declared that “China has unquestionable sovereignty over the Philippines” rather than just over the disputed island. On Tuesday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying warned a Philippine diplomat that China was fully prepared to do anything to respond to escalationDeep-water drilling has begun near islands in the South China Sea and Chinese travel agencies have reportedly suspended tours to the Philippines. Chinese netizens are fully in support of the claims, and have in many instances criticized the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for not taking more assertive action.

As with previous territorial disputes in East Asia these days (see China-Vietnam, China-Japan, and Korea-Japan), the political, diplomatic, and military maneuvering has a cyber component. On April 20, Chinese hackers attacked the website of the University of the Philippines. The next day, Filipino hackers struck back with the defacement of Chinese websites. On the 23rd and 24th, the two sides again traded tit-for-tat attacks (a very useful timeline up until April 30 can be found here). Attacks have continued over the last week; today attackers pasted the Chinese flag on the website of the Philippines News Agency.

From almost the beginning of the attacks, the Philippines government has called for both sides to stop. On April 22, a Philippines government spokesperson said, “We call on citizens, including ours, to exercise civil temperance.” On April 25, the Philippines’ Department of Science and Technology and Information and Communications Technology Office declared that the attacks were neither sanctioned nor condoned, and on May 10 a spokesman went further in warning that such attacks “will not benefit anyone and could possibly lead to bigger problems in the future for the Philippines and China and escalate the already tense situation at Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal).” This is not a misplaced worry as freelance attacks could make it much more difficult for the two sides to communicate and signal intentions.

Unfortunately, there has been silence from Beijing on the issue. China’s leaders seem to be embracing the conflict, or at least the prospect of conflict, as a welcome distraction from the problems of Chen Guangcheng and Bo Xilai. As Michael Yip and Craig Weber argue, the Chinese government – after years of enrolling students in patriotic education that stresses a history of national humiliation – needs to align itself with and divert away from nationalistic responses to real and perceived slights. Political hacking acts as a diversion–venting resentment away from the regime, focusing web users’ ire on outside actors, and maintaining the government’s nationalistic credentials.

When China’s Minister of Defense General Liang Guanglie was at the Pentagon this week, he talked about how China wanted to work to improve cybersecurity. Beijing could gain a great deal of credibility by doing what the Philippines has done: call on both sides to stop the attacks.

Post a Comment 13 Comments

  • Posted by China Lee

    Chinese fishermen have fished at Huangyan Island/Scarborough Shoal for time immemorial. It has been Chinese territory for countless generations.

    “Xinhua Insight: True story behind Huangyan Island dispute in South China Sea (Part 1). 2012-05-09 23:51:09

    ‘For many generations we have fished in this [Huangyan Island] water,’ said Ke Weixiu, a fisherman and native from the port of Tanmen in Hainan.”

  • Posted by rangerwil

    China is aggressively taking loot from the Philippines. The Scarborough shoal belongs to the Philippines. China is using the issue to cover them from the real problem which is corruption in China. China chose to bully the Philippines because of its weak military equipment. But China must learn their lesson during the Korean war wherein, Filipino troops defeated Chinese forces who was about to reinforce the North Korea.

  • Posted by rangerwill

    These Chinese were very boastful! A real bug ugly bully! What they are doing in our territory? The shoal is a part of Zambales, Philippines! We should send Brgy Tanod or the local police to apprehend them! Because if they will be pursued by our navy, these land of the pirates China will make protest and will say that their ship and vessels are civilian (even though these vessels fishing vessels and the two maritime vessels are the one harassing the Philippine navy ship! Pirate-minded people! Imagine, the distance between the mainland China to the Scarborough Shoal against the distance of the Philippines to that shoal! In the first place, all those Chinese maritime ships and fishing vessels should be apprehended be arrested and put them in the Zambales Jail!
    Chinese Ambassador Ma is a Liar! She alibi that the Chinese fishermen were just anchored on the shoal for shelter against the storm. But the fact is, there was no storm in the area during the past weeks. It was and it is a sunny day in the area! What she must do is to explain why there are Chinese Fishermen with protected endangered marine species such as corals, sharks, and giant clams aboard their fishing vessels. Those endangered marine species belong to the Philippines. China is looting the Philippines of their natural treasures!
    China is just obviously taking revenge because the Philippines lead the ASEAN in a united stand against the aggression of China!
    May I call on the attention of the Philippine government to watch carefully the Chinese movements. Philippine authorities must not leave the Scarborough shoal because if they do, the China will surely put a military garrison on the shoal. And they will just alibi that these are just for their fishermen. We should learned about their tactics when China removed Philippine markers and construct buildings on the Mischief reef, when questioned, they just alibi that it is just for their fishermen, but after a year it was fully developed into a fortress with numerous artillery guns. Talk and take tactics!
    We are calling the Philippine Government not to leave our shoal. If you do, China will again erect concrete structures on that shoal and when questioned, they will alibi again that the structures are just shelter for their fishermen. These structures will later on be mounted with naval guns, anti aircraft guns and will be garrisoned by Chinese military as what they did before on the Mischief reef. Talk and take tactics!
    China, beware, don’t push the Philippines to the limit, because if you do, you will see. Philippines is known to the world for their bravery, courage, and tactics!
    China just want to test the stand of USA if one of their ally like is being attack/harassed by their Chinese military. China chose Philippines as a part of their test because of weak military of the Philippines. China can’t try to test it to other neighboring countries like Vietnam and Malaysia, Brunei, because they will fight back immediately by force.

  • Posted by paul

    oh, come on! we are on the 21st century by Chinas logic of owning these areas based on their ancient history of dynasties could only mean that France can claim all of napoleons past imperial territories Spain can claim most of the Americas because they discovered it and established colonies there and even today they retained the spanish culture and language, a formidable claim for Spain based on china’s logic huh? and don’t forget the Philippines and Taiwan or formerly named Formosa protected by the Spanish and Filipino soldiers before they abandoned that island after the American-Spanish war. the Mongolians could even claim the whole of china because it was owned and conquered by the great Genghis khan. and why won’t the Chinese just bring this conflict to the international courts? uh, they know they would not stand a chance. as if territories and politics don’t change in time or maybe they thought they are still living in the ancient times oh by the way an ancient Filipino emperor and king owned pacific islands up to Hawaii. by our own rich history can we also claim the whole of the pacific ocean?

  • Posted by CharlesJensen

    If you actually look at the map, its very clear that China is encroaching on territory well beyond its own.

  • Posted by eyedrd

    It is interesting that China gives the rights to interfere with the internal affairs of the Phillippines, which is a democracy and the people can take the streets. Unlike in the communist regimes, mass demonstrations are staged by the state.
    China has condemned the demonstration and used it as the pretext to cancel vacation tours to the Philippines. It is a small demonstration of the Chinese soft power. China has consistently refused to resolve the dispute through normal diplomacy or international arbitration. Instead, China has kept sending ships to the area to show its might.

    As VN crackdowns on anti-China demonstrations, some Vietnamese activists made special trip to the Philippines to join the rally and show Vietnamese solidarity in face of the big bully.
    Thousand Filipinos demonstrate against China’s aggression in Manilla; Vietnamese activists also participated

  • Posted by Pinoy maid

    Quote “Philippines is known to the world for their bravery, courage, and tactics!” by Rangerwill.

    Hahahaha, what a naive little piece of statement, coming from none other than another naive Filipino himself!

    Have any Filipinos ever landed on those rocks for centuries?

    How do you claim those islands are yours other than when the equally biased UN made those maritime laws of 200 nautical miles from the shore (way back when China was weak)

    How do you explain your claims from those of Malaysia and Brunei? You are not bullying them? But China is said to ‘bully’ you?

    Wake up, Pinoys. Remember, you started this ‘aggression’ first. bringing in a warship to show force! A warship with no teeth.

    Yet another dumb naive statement “China is just obviously taking revenge because the Philippines lead the ASEAN in a united stand against the aggression of China!’

    The whole of Asean don’t even bother, they have kept silent and do not want this issue to be taken up at the recent Asean forum meeting.

    The Pinoys stand alone in Asean and the US has not said anything other than to repeat the 1951 treaty. But they also said the islands has got nothing to do with them and not in their strategic interests. Read into this more, and you’re realised they are not going to fight alongside you in case of conflict.

    So, Filipinos, YOU ARE ALONE IN THIS ‘FIGHT’

    Philippines is now known as the ‘sick man of Asia’ NOT by sheer bad luck or a misfortune of history. They become so by their own backwardness, and yes, shallow thinking and continued naiveness.

  • Posted by Bamm

    China Lee said: “Chinese fishermen have fished at Huangyan Island/Scarborough Shoal for time immemorial. It has been Chinese territory for countless generations.”

    True. But you forget that Filipino fishermen have also fished there for time immemorial. In fact, it is inconceivable that people from what is now called the Philippines had not known about the place, since it is only a short distance from Philippine shores.

    For centuries, Filipino and Chinese fishermen have peacefully coexisted, sometimes even sharing catch with one another. Of course, Filipino fishermen far outnumber their Chinese guests, because it takes days for a fishing boat to get there from China, while it only takes hours to get there from Zambales.

    China Lee, your statement makes it appear that only Chinese go there. Your statement is the same as every Chinese person’s statement I heard. This means that you don’t really know the situation. You only learned that from another source, probably your government’s official statement. But your statement does not reflect the reality of the area. That is understandable, because you live so far away. Filipinos know Panatag shoal better, because we live near the area and it is just a next-door island.

    Filipinos from the Zambales area, mostly fishermen, have also considered it their territory for countless generations. Especially since they don’t need to travel days to get there as you do.

  • Posted by Andrew Chubb

    Thanks for a useful post, Adam, however I must take issue with your statement that, “Political hacking acts as a diversion – venting resentment away from the regime, focusing web users’ ire on outside actors, and maintaining the government’s nationalistic credentials.”

    This line of thinking assumes that the (online) PRC population somehow become happier with their government when their focus is on foreign policy disputes. On the South China sea issue, the reality is quite the opposite: criticism of the Chinese government is at least as common as criticism of the Philippines and Vietnam. As i’ve documented on my blog, online public opinion is dominated by criticism of the alleged weakness of the government’s stance, which is in turn often connected with domestic corruption.

    The only conceivable way Beijing can bolster its nationalistic credentials on this particular issue is to somehow achieve decisive control of Scarborough Shoal. Short of that, drawing attention to the issue actually provokes domestic criticism on nationalist grounds.

  • Posted by sam

    The shoal belongs to china! I mean philipines didn’t even own it! China has fished off of it for years! Anyways China will beat philipines.

  • Posted by p-noy

    A lack of posture that China didn’t see the territorial boundaries. True! the shoal is owned by the Philippines

  • Posted by PJB

    See..the problem with having a communist country is the truth.. how much is what they are telling you is the truth? Funny how you got your source/FACT from Chinese Documentary! and now you base your decision in that…Try Google.. Oh wait.. that’s being being controlled too..

    @Pinoy Maid: Lol.. funny how you label Filipino and what we stand in Asia, Ever stop and think where China image is? How did the Olympic Go? How are the Tibetan People being Force EXILE on their own land… i think i should stop there… d(^___^)b… Anyone ever seen chinas’s EEZ? poor country surrounded, they all have a thing for china.

  • Posted by china magnanakaw

    @pinoy maid. how pathetic can you get? you can buy gucci but you can’t be classy you can speak eloquently but that does not make you educated

    here is our label# china-magnanakaw

    you are thieves yes you stole turkestan,you stole tibet

    but you cannot steal what was never yours and the world knows that

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